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Internet In America: An On Again, Off Again Relationship

Comcast is the largest cable company and home Internet service provider in the United States. A recent survey found that many Americans give Internet service providers low marks for satisfaction.
Matt Rourke
Comcast is the largest cable company and home Internet service provider in the United States. A recent survey found that many Americans give Internet service providers low marks for satisfaction.
Internet In America: An On Again, Off Again Relationship

The American Customer Satisfaction Index surveys large swaths of consumers about various industries. And in last year's survey, Americans rated Internet service providers at the very bottom for satisfaction. That puts them below the postal service, health insurance and even airlines.

Critics of the telecom industry say Americans are paying too much money for slow speeds and bad service. The industry says those charges are way overblown.

All Things Considered recently asked its fans on Facebook, "How satisfied are you with your Internet service provider?" Many responded that they didn't like their Internet service, that it often goes out and that their connection was often "painfully slow."

But not everyone we spoke to has had a bad experience. Jon Lemich of Columbia, Md., said he really liked his service. "It very rarely has any problems. And their customer service has been great," he says.

Lemich also says he has several options; his neighborhood has cable as well as access to Verizon's high-speed fiber optic Internet.

But that's not true for everyone, because the map of broadband access is still a patchwork in the U.S.

Highs And Lows

In rural areas, you might only have satellite, and even in big cities the menu can be limited. Some people just get access through their smartphones, while others might be stuck with a single cable provider or slower DSL connections.

Having a slow Internet connection is more serious than not being able to keep up with your favorite TV show on Hulu or Netflix. Working from home or online banking can be fraught with headaches and delays.

Breann Neal of Hudson, Ill., says her only viable option is a DSL connection, which can be frustrating. "There's no incentive for them to make it better for us because we're still paying them every month ... and there's no competition," Neal says.

That might be expected in a small town like Hudson. But even in a big city like Chicago? Samantha Laws, who gets her Internet through her cable provider, says she also only has one option.

"It goes out at least once a day, and it's been getting worse the last few months," Laws says. She works with a pet-sitting company that handles all of its scheduling through email and the company website. At times she can't do her job because of the spotting connection.

There are parts of the country, however, where things are substantially better: like in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mayor Andy Berke says the city has "the largest, fastest, most pervasive Internet in the Western hemisphere."

About four years ago, the public electric utility EPB upgraded Chattanooga's power grid to fiber optic, mostly to help deal with power outages. But the utility realized an added benefit: That same grid can carry very high-speed Internet. So, for $70 a month, the company now offers customers upload and download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, about 100 times faster than the average U.S. connection.

Berke tells NPR's Arun Rath that the fiber optic grid is an investment in the future, when more businesses will need that superfast broadband.

"We're starting to see companies who are looking at us ... who understand that they will need more capacity in the future, and Chattanooga has that today," he says.

For example, he says a tech startup called Quickcue is growing and creating jobs in Chattanooga.

But it's all come at a steep price. Installing the grid cost about $300 million.

Few Alternatives For Many

In some other places, private companies have made the investment in high-speed infrastructure. There's Verizon's fiber optic network FiOS, and Google has installed fiber in Kansas City and plans to expand to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah.

Elsewhere in the country, options remain limited. If you're unsatisfied, the government has a block-by-block database of broadband providers where you can find out if you have other options. Or, maybe like some, you're stuck with service you just don't like.

"[For] at least 77 percent of the country, your only choice for a high-capacity, high-speed Internet connection is your local cable monopoly," says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

Crawford says that today's high-speed Internet infrastructure is equivalent to when the railroad lines were controlled by a very few moguls who divided up the country between themselves and gouged everybody on prices.

She says the U.S. has fallen behind other countries in providing broadband. At best, Crawford says, the U.S. is at the middle of the pack and is far below many countries when it comes to fiber optic penetration. Given that the Internet was developed in the U.S., she says the gap is a result of failures in policy.

"These major infrastructure businesses aren't like other market businesses," Crawford says. "It is very expensive to install them in the first place, and then they build up enormous barriers of entry around them. It really doesn't make sense to try to compete with a player like Comcast or Time Warner Cable."

So Crawford is calling for is a major public works projects to install fiber optic infrastructure — a public grid that private companies could then use to deliver Internet service.

An Inaccurate Assessment

Not everyone agrees with Crawford's comparison of the broadband market to "gilded age" railroad barons. Michael Powell, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, calls it a "badly exaggerated view."

Powell is now the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which lobbies Congress on behalf of the industry. He tells NPR that Crawford fails to mention the telephone industry and the robust U.S. wireless market as competitors.

"I think to exclude it as a substitutable, competitive alternative is an error that leads you to believe the market is substantially more concentrated that it actually is," Powell says.

Powell also says that the U.S. is not significantly behind other countries when it comes to broadband access and speeds.

"I think taking a snapshot and declaring us as somehow dangerously falling behind is just not substantiated by the data," he says. He says it is like taking a snapshot of speed skaters, where there might be a few seconds separating the leaders, but no one is "meaningfully out of the race."

As far as customers rating Internet service providers so poorly on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, Powell says he hasn't seen the data, but that because of the way we package Internet in this country it is hard to separate the dissatisfaction of one service from the entire package.

"Customer satisfaction is really critical," he says, "but at the same time, the growth and the use of those services — and the amount of increased money consumers tend to invest in communications services even when they have other alternatives — to some degree speaks for itself."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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