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The Fixation with Broadband Speeds

Leichtman Research Group recently conducted a nationwide poll of 2,000 households asking about broadband usage. LRG has been tracking broadband for many years and reports that overall broadband subscriptions are at 87% of all households in 2021, up from 83% in 2016, and 69% in 2006. There are a few results of the survey that I think warrant additional examination.

According to the LRG survey, 63% of broadband subscribers rate the speed of their Internet connection as 8 to10 on a 10-point scale with 10 being excellent. In a similar question, 69% of respondents who subscribe to speeds of at least 100 Mbps are satisfied with their broadband service.

The big news here isn’t that many homes are satisfied with broadband speeds – it’s that one-third of all households don’t think their broadband speeds are great. The news is that over 30% of homes with speeds over 100 Mbps are not satisfied with their broadband.

My consulting firm conducts surveys at the community level, and I often see similar results. LRG only released the high-level summary responses to the survey, so we don’t know all of the questions they asked. But if LRG only asked about broadband speeds, they asked the wrong question. This was borne out by the response to a different survey question where 45% of the respondents in the LRG poll don’t even know their subscribed broadband speed.

What I’ve found through surveys is that people don’t really care about broadband speeds – they care if their broadband connection works. Most people haven’t the slightest idea at any given time how much broadband speed is being delivered to their home. I sometimes hear dismay when people finally take a speed test and find out that they are only receiving a portion of what they are paying for – but even these people might not be unhappy with broadband if it works.

Here are the things I hear from the public when we ask the same kinds of questions that LRG asked:

  • One of the most common complaints I hear about big cable company broadband is outages. The issue in most markets is not big hours-long outages but frequent small outages of a few minutes in duration. These small drive people mad because it invariably disrupts whatever they were doing with the broadband.
  • Right behind unhappiness with outages is unhappiness with slowdowns. The complaint I hear is that broadband works most of the time but then gets maddingly slow at times. It’s almost as disruptive as an outage when broadband slows to a crawl.
  • The other big recurring complaint I hear is when broadband won’t perform an expected function. People become quickly unhappy with their broadband connection when they can’t do something like maintain a Zoom call or if they get kicked off a school or office connection. Somebody might have no trouble streaming Netflix movies but find that they can’t stream the more demanding live sports broadcasts.

This survey reminded me of something that has become clear to me over the last year – policymakers are fixated on broadband speeds but people care about broadband performance. These are not the same thing. I’ve never talked to anybody outside the industry who cares one iota about the definition of broadband – they only care if everybody in the household can use the Internet at the same time.

From a policy perspective, it seems like we’ve decided that there are no urban broadband problems because everybody can buy Internet faster than 100 Mbps download. Even if we set aside the issue that many homes can’t afford broadband, this survey points out that a lot of urban households find their broadband connection to be inadequate.

Our policies are all due to the fixation with broadband speeds. Concentrating on speeds as the only way to measure broadband means that policymakers can yield to cable company lobbying that says we have no urban broadband issues.

I am absolutely thrilled that we are finally going to use some money to bring faster broadband to rural areas that have little or no broadband. But policymakers need to understand that this will not eliminate broadband problems elsewhere. A huge number of people in urban areas are still not happy with their broadband connection – and that’s a problem that’s not going to go away by throwing grant money at rural markets. If anything, building rural fiber is going to remind urban residents that they have something of lesser quality.

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