from the not-so-hot dept
While the telecom sector often enjoys crowing about the superiority of U.S. wireless, the reality is we’re not all that superior. While the U.S. was among the first countries to deploy 4G LTE, US 4G speeds tend to be fairly pathetic, with one study ranking the US 47th out of 77 countries studied. US wireless data prices are also significantly higher than a long list of other developed nations, thanks in no small part to regulatory capture and revolving door regulators.
This week the US wireless sector was shamed further via a new report by OpenSignal, which found that US wireless video streaming quality also remains somewhat underwhelming. According to the study, the U.S. is ranked 68th out of 100 when it comes to video streaming quality, someplace between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The crowdsourced study is based on 94,086,045,513 measurements from 37,671,772 devices running Opensignal?s software between August 1 and October 30. The authors, by and large, place the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of insufficient spectrum:
“While there was an improvement in Americans? Video Experience ? with the score increasing from 46.7 to 53.8 points ? it was not enough to shift U.S. consumers up a gear into the Good category. Instead, Video Experience remained stuck in the Fair category. Americans had the lowest Video Experience score of any of the G7 economically leading countries as U.S. carriers struggle with the combination of enormous mobile video consumption and insufficient new spectrum. Opensignal?s results highlight the need for the release of more mid-band spectrum to help U.S. carriers meet the mobile video needs of Americans.”
But it’s not just spectrum. Another recent study showed that many of the problems with US video streaming come courtesy of bizarre restrictions imposed on U.S. wireless consumers’ connections. Restrictions generally used to nickel-and-dime customers into paying significantly higher rates. Sprint, for example, has sold “unlimited” data plans that throttle all video, games, and music unless consumers pay more. Verizon has similarly been selling “unlimited” data plans that throttled all video to standard definition by default, making HD or 4K luxury options that require you pay even more money to obtain.
These restrictions are justified by claims of spectrum scarcity, but often have more to do with the US telecom sector’s allergy to genuine price competition. There’s a universe of reasons for that, from the monopolies companies enjoy over tower backhaul to revolving door regulators who prioritize profits over healthy markets or consumers. And it’s a problem that’s likely to get worse with the repeal of net neutrality rules that attempted, albeit imperfectly, to thwart a lot of this kind of predatory nonsense in the absence of more heated competition.
While 5G is propped up as some miraculous panacea for the sector, it can’t stop the FCC from pandering to industry, fix backhaul monopolies, or stop our obsession with merger mania, which, as the T-Mobile Sprint deal will soon illustrate, only acts to erode competition and any incentive to compete on price. The real reason for substandard US Telecom has long been regulatory capture and limited price competition working in concert, something OpenSignal likely isn’t keen on highlighting for fear of annoying its paying clients in the telecom sector.
Still, these studies tend to highlight how, while the US crows a lot about wireless superiority, we remain largely mediocre when it comes to most of the wireless metrics (availability, speed, quality) that actually matter. So while many prattle on about the “race to 5G” and how we must pander to AT&T and Verizon or risk losing our amazing edge in wireless, it’s worth remembering that edge doesn’t actually exist.