from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
By now we’ve well established that regional monopolization, limited competition, and the (state and federal) corruption that enables both (aka regulatory capture) are why US broadband is spotty, expensive, and slow. With neither competent regulatory oversight nor meaningful competition to drive improvements, regional dominant broadband providers simply… don’t bother. The end result goes beyond high prices to substandard customer service, privacy violations, net neutrality violations, and unnecessary surcharges, usage caps, and fees they often don’t clearly disclose.
A recent report from the Institute For Local Self Reliance took a look at how transparent U.S. ISPs are about broadband prices, line restrictions, and hidden surcharges. And the results are about what you’d expect. As in, most U.S. ISPs do a fairly terrible job (quite intentionally) of making it clear how much you’ll pay for broadband, what your upstream and downstream speeds are, and whether there’s any hidden restrictions or fees you’ll face once you sign up.
Why? For one, big ISPs don’t like making it easy to do direct price comparisons, lest people clearly understand the real impact of limited competition and regional market failure. They also routinely engage in false advertising where they advertise one lower price, then hit you with a bunch of bullshit fees. Big ISPs also tend to hide anything that doesn’t make them look good or could showcase their network underinvestment, such as pathetic upload speeds:
This is, the report notes, much less of a problem with local community broadband networks. Previous studies out of Harvard had noted community broadband generally offers lower, more transparent prices than large ISPs, and that’s showcased again here:
Again, this isn’t just a failure of competition, but a failure of regulatory oversight and telecom policy. The FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules included a provision requiring that ISPs be transparent about pricing and line restrictions. And while the net neutrality aspect of their 2015 order was repealed by the Trump FCC, the transparency component was not. Still, despite the transparency rule having now existed for six years under two different political parties, the report notes how nobody at the FCC has bothered to enforce it:
“The Transparency Rule, however, is largely unenforced. It is commonly accepted that without effective government regulation or competitive market pressure, ISPs are in a position to abuse their power. The Internet access industry is governed neither by regulation nor market pressure in most communities. Because providers don?t have to answer to regulation or worry about their customers switching providers if they offer less than satisfactory service, providers are rarely held accountable for information that is missing or hard to find. Were providers held accountable for making accessible disclosures, customers could less easily be exploited.
The broadband component of the recently-passed infrastructure bill added some additional language requiring that ISPs provide a sort of “nutrition label” for their connections clearly disclosing all restrictions and sneaky fees. But again, rules are only useful if they’re enforced, and the FCC historically under both parties… just hasn’t bothered doing so. Big ISPs like AT&T aren’t just politically powerful campaign contributors, they’re effectively tethered to law enforcement and intelligence systems, reducing any incentive to hold them accountable for pretty much anything of note.