One of the most questionable facts circulating in the broadband industry is that a large percentage of homes in the country have multiple ISP options. I wrote a recent blog about a survey done by U.S. News and World Report. One of the facts noted in that report is that the FCC data shows that 94% of homes have a choice of three or more ISPs.
I’ve seen similar statistics elsewhere, and it’s not hard to see that this information comes from the latest FCC mapping data. I’m not surprised to find that the FCC maps show that 94% of homes in the country have three or more ISPs claiming the ability to provide service. But that is very different than saying that folks have three real choices of ISP.
Consider my home. I live in a city, and the FCC map shows that I have nine choices of ISP. But do I really? Some of the ISPs listed as serving my house are not viable options. For example, UScellular claims to offer a connection of 2 Mbps download and 0.064 Mbps upload. I live in a hilly and woody city, and I doubt that even that slow speed is actually available. Another local cellular company says I can get 25/3 Mbps, but I am skeptical in my hilly and wooded town. AT&T is listed with two DSL options at 75/20 Mbps and 18/2.5 Mbps. I have three satellite options listed, but my home is surrounded by mountains on all four sides and we have a limited view of the horizon. The fastest satellite option listed is Viasat at 100/2 Mbps – which is much faster than what speed tests indicate. In the previous version of the map, T-Mobile showed a speed of 0.2 Mbps download at my home but didn’t claim coverage in the latest maps.
I’ve looked at the similar details in the FCC maps at counties all around the country, and a large percentage of the ISPs available at most homes are not real options. If it wasn’t so expensive to do so, I’m tempted to try to buy broadband from every ISP listed at my home to find out if they can really serve here – and if they can deliver the speeds listed on the FCC map. My bet is that due to the geography in my area, that three or four of the options listed are not really available at my home and that most of the ones listed would badly underperform the speeds claimed in the FCC maps.
But that’s only half of the story. I think a large percentage of families these days like mine and want a broadband connection that is vigorous enough to support the way they use broadband. There are only a handful of broadband options for homes that want high-quality broadband.
- Fiber is the gold standard of quality broadband.
- The two biggest cable companies together have over half of the nationwide broadband subscribers. I’m on Charter, which claims I can buy download speeds up to a gigabit.
- Verizon 5G Home Plus is essentially fiber-to-the curb. This is available in limited markets, but I’ve seen recent speed tests for the technology with gigabit download speeds.
- Customers within a mile or so of towers equipped with FWA cellular wireless are seeing speeds from 100 – 300 Mbps download. But outside of that distance, the speeds drop quickly. The carriers also throttle broadband any time that cell phone usage gets heavy in a given neighborhood.
- Some fixed wireless WISPs are delivering fast speeds with the newest radios. Speed tests show that most WISPs have not yet upgraded, but faster speeds are on the horizon for WISPs that will make the upgrades.
- Starlink is a great option when there is no cable company or fiber available – but how many people in cities are willing to pay more for a slower option?
I work at home and am online a lot, and I would never take the chance of putting my businesses on an underperforming ISP – and I think a lot of people feel the same way.
I’ve lately been using the term Competition Gap to describe this situation. While many ISPs claim to have wide coverage, most households don’t feel like they have real options. In my city, it’s hard to picture somebody working at home who isn’t using Charter or the various pockets of AT&T fiber. For now, the FWA towers are too far outside of the city to be a viable option.
I think most folks in my city would tell you they only have either one or two real choices for quality broadband, and they would be laugh if you told them they had nine. ISP. There are certainly still people in my city here who use DSL. There might be a tiny handful using the satellite or cellular broadband. But most of the folks choosing these slower options are either casual broadband users or can’t afford the big ISP broadband prices.
The idea that 94% of U.S. homes have three or more real broadband options is ludicrous. I would guess that the percentage of homes in the country with even two quality choices is significantly lower than 50%.
The FCC hasn’t issued an annual broadband report since 2021, probably due to not having a fifth Commissioner. It will be interesting to see what the FCC claims about broadband coverage when it finally issues a report. I bet the FCC report say something along the same lines as mentioned in the U.S. News and Word Report survey – that the state of broadband is good and that almost all Americans have multiple choices for good broadband. But that would be political fantasy that ignores what most households know – most of us in cities have only one or two choices of quality broadband. Many folks in rural areas still don’t even have one.