The Industry

Higher Prices for Rural Broadband

Innovative Systems of Mitchell, South Dakota, commissioned a survey of broadband and bundled rates paid by rural residents. This is the eighth year of the survey. The 2022 survey focused on zip codes that are completely rural in order to find out about rural rates. The results come from surveys administered to 841 rural residents.

The study showed that the average rate paid for rural broadband increased from $68 per month in 2021 to $71 in 2022. The average bill for customers that bundle broadband with video increased from $114 in 2021 to $121 in 2022.

I was not surprised to see rural rates climbing because rates seem to be moving upward everywhere. For example, in urban markets, all of the major cable companies have had rate increases. A lot of other ISPs have followed suit in an attempt to keep ahead of inflation.

But nationwide averages don’t likely tell the story everywhere in rural markets. It has been my experience, having worked in dozens of counties in the last few years, that rural rates generally have a lot more geographic variance than urban rates. In any given rural county, there generally is only a tiny handful of ISPs with significant market penetration, and the rates of those specific ISPs might be significantly different than even in a neighboring county.

The rural broadband landscape is incredibly diverse. There are counties where the largest ISP is still the incumbent telco with DSL. Many counties have WISPs providing broadband – but I see counties with no WISPs and others with a half dozen. There are households using both high-orbit satellites like Viasat, but also Starlink. There are often a number of households using cellular hotspots – and now I’m starting to see some counties where the newer and faster FWA broadband is making inroads. Some lucky counties now have rural fiber – and some have a lot of it.

This all means having drastically varying average broadband costs from county to county. For example, I would expect a county where most subscribers use satellite or hotspots to have the highest average rates – because those two options can be incredibly expensive for a home that uses even a modest amount of broadband in a month. Viasat, Hughesnet, and the various hotspot products all have meager data caps, and I’ve talked to homes that regularly had broadband bills during the pandemic of $500 or more per month, with minimum bills easily at over $100 for satellite. Starlink recently raised its rate to $120, with some customers having to pay $130.

At the other end of the price scale are some cooperatives that offer low rates on fiber. There are a few coops that sell a gigabit connection for $50 or less.

WISP prices are all over the board, with some WISPs with $60 rates while others are closer to $100.

DSL rates from the large incumbent telcos have held steady for many years, although rates have recently changed. For example, CenturyLink increased DSL rates in 2022 after many years with the same rates.

Probably the most generally affordable rural rates are FWA wireless from T-Mobile, Verizon, and some smaller cellular carriers. But I still haven’t encountered a rural county where this is a widely available product. Many rural counties still have not seen the upgrades needed for FWA. But even in counties where FWA has been deployed, the product is only available for folks who live fairly close to cell towers – and much of rural America has a real dearth of cell towers.

I’ve studied counties in the last few years where average prices were in the $60s and others where the average was closer to $90. My surveys have produced results similar to this one where I’m finding the overall average rates to be a little closer to $75 per month – but this survey has a much wider sample of communities

Upgrading to faster networks from grants will not necessarily bring better rates. I’ve already seen a few RDOF winners with gigabit rates in the $60 range, while a few others have starting rates close to $100. I think rural prices are always going to be very dependent on the local ISPs that take up shop in a given county.

Regulation - What is it Good For?

Add Affordability to the Definition of Broadband

We spend an inordinate amount of time in the industry fixating on whether broadband connections meet certain speeds. There are rural communities all over the country asking residents to take speed tests right now hoping to prove that their broadband is inadequate. What I find sad is that every community that is doing this already knows the answer before they start gathering speed tests – they know their rural broadband is inadequate for the way that people want to use it.

I was glad recently to be reminded by a survey from the Leichtman Research Group survey that showed that 45% of homes have no idea what broadband speed they are supposed to be getting or are getting. I’ve seen the same thing in the numerous surveys we’ve done – people don’t fixate on Internet speeds and most just care if their home Internet works.

The surveys we coordinate for communities show one other issue that people care about, which is the price of broadband. In the hundreds of communities where we’ve done surveys, we almost always see that at least half of respondents think broadband is too expensive. In some communities, more than 90% of residents tell us that broadband is too expensive. When we ask people why they don’t have home broadband, the primary response in every survey is the cost of broadband.

I’ve had a half-baked idea floating around my brain for some time that might help address this problem. I’ve been wondering if prices shouldn’t be part of the definition of broadband.  There is a lot of discussion about setting a new definition of broadband speed at 100/20 Mbps. But I’ve learned in working with dozens of communities that there is a huge difference between a 100/20 Mbps connection that costs $55 and one that costs $85. As far as the public is concerned, these are not the same product – but we pretend that they are.

We know that as broadband prices increase, households are forced to drop broadband or downgrade to a slow-speed but cheaper alternative like DSL. One thing I’ve learned through surveys is that people in cities keep DSL because it costs less. People are not happy with the inferior performance of DSL, but they choose to spend $50 for a slow DSL connection because they can’t afford a 100/20 Mbps connection from Comcast or Charter.

Some of the new federal grants pay lip service to affordable rates, but none of these rules have any teeth. In fact, the giant BEAD grant legislation specifically prohibits the NTIA from suggesting broadband rates. (Any bet that this language came from the cable companies?) Some grants reward applicants for having a low-income broadband product, but they don’t insist that ISPs put any energy into marketing a low-income plan.

I don’t have specific metrics in mind, but there must be a way to weave affordability into the definition of broadband. Perhaps it’s something like the following. If 100/20 is the speed definition of broadband, then maybe connections under $60 would be considered as served, priced between $60 and $80 might be underserved, and prices over $80 would be considered as unserved. The price tiers I’ve chosen are arbitrary and open for debate, but the concept is that grants and subsidies ought to favor ISPs with affordable rates.

I know that real life is a lot more complex than my simple example. The big cable companies disguise broadband prices by hiding them in bundles. ISPs have jacked up the cost of the modem so that the basic broadband price sounds cheaper. In those markets lucky enough to have competition, the big ISPs offer special low rates for those willing to ask, while still billing the full rates to everybody else.

There is nothing that scares the big cable companies more than talking about regulating broadband prices. This was the main motivation for deregulating broadband at the FCC – cable companies don’t want regulators looking too closely at broadband prices. But prices matter at least as much as speeds, and for millions of homes, price is everything.

I know the big ISPs will say that the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) will take care of this issue – but it doesn’t. Not all ISPs are going to take part in the program, and many of the ones that do will not market it to customers. Besides, how good a deal is it to get $30 off the basic Comcast broadband product that costs $90? The price after the ACP subsidy is still out of reach of many homes and is still more expensive than urban DSL – and many of the homes without broadband today can’t even afford DSL. Besides, there is also no guarantee that the ACP program won’t die in a few years when the funding runs dry.

I have no easy answer for this issue, but I hope this blog might plant a seed with somebody who can figure this out. I know that we have to stop ignoring the fact that prices matter. I’ve said for years that the big cable companies are on a path towards $100 broadband, and they are getting closer every year. Let’s stop pretending that $90 or $100 broadband is the same product as $50 or $60 broadband – even if the speeds are the same.

Regulation - What is it Good For?

Will Congress Be Forced to Re-regulate Broadband?

Last year the current FCC largely deregulated broadband. They killed Title II regulation and also handed off any remaining vestiges of broadband regulation to the Federal Trade Commission. The FCC is still left with broadband-related tasks associated with broadband. For instance, they still have to track broadband adoption rates. They are still required to try to solve the rural digital divide. They still approve electronics used to provide broadband. But this FCC has killed its own authority to make ISPs change their behavior.

I wrote a blog a month ago talking about the regulatory pendulum. Industries that become dominated by monopolies are always eventually regulated in some manner – governments either proscribe operating rules or else break up monopolies using antitrust laws. One only has to look at the conversation going on in Washington (and around the world) about somehow regulating Facebook, Google and other big web platforms to see that this is inevitable. Big monopolies always grow to trample consumers and eventually the public demands that monopoly abused be curbed.

It’s only been a little over a year since the FCC deregulated broadband and there are already topics looming that beg for regulation. There is nothing to stop this FCC or a future FCC from reintroducing regulation – the courts already gave approval for regulating using Title II. Regulation can also come from Congress – which is the preferred path to stop the wild swings every time there’s a new administration. Even the ISPs would rather be regulated by Congress than to bounce back and forth between FCCs with differing philosophies.

Over half of the states have introduced bills that seek to regulate data privacy. Consumers are tired of data breaches and tired of having their personal information secretly peddled to the highest bidder. A year ago the California legislature passed data rules that largely mimic what’s being done in Europe. The Maine legislature just passed rules that are even more stringent than California in some ways.

It’s going to be incredibly expensive and complicated for web companies to try to comply with rules that differ by state. Web companies are in favor of one set of federal privacy rules – the big companies are already complying with European Union rules and they’ve accepted that providing some privacy to consumers is the cost of doing business. Privacy rules need to apply to ISPs as much as they do to the big web companies. Large ISPs are busy gathering and selling customer data in the same manner as web companies. Cellular companies are gathering and selling huge amounts of customer data.

There are other regulatory issues that are also looming. It seems obvious that if the administration and the Senate turn Democratic that one of their priorities will be to reimplement net neutrality. The ISPs are already starting to quietly violate net neutrality rules. They are first tackling things that customers like such as sponsored video as part of a cellular plan – but over time you can expect the worst kind of abuses that were the reasons behind net neutrality rules.

I think that broadband prices are going to become a major issue. The big ISPs have all acknowledged that one of the few tools they have to maintain earnings growth is to raise broadband prices. Cord cutting is accelerating and in the first quarter the ISPs lost cable customers at a rate of 6% annually. Cord cutting looks like it’s going to go much faster than the industry anticipated as millions of customers bail on traditional cable each quarter. The pressure to raise broadband rates is growing.

We’ve already seen the start of broadband price increases. Over the last few years the ISPs have been raising rates around the edges, such as increasing the monthly price for a broadband modem. More recently we’ve seen direct broadband price increases such as the $5 rate increase for bundled broadband by Charter. We’re seeing Comcast and other ISPs start billing people for crossing data caps. Most recently we know that several ISPs are talking about significantly curtailing special rates and discount for customers – eliminating those discounts probably equates to a 10% – 15% rate increase.

At some point, the FCC will have to deal with rising broadband rates. Higher broadband rates will increase the digital divide as households get priced out from affording broadband. The public will put a lot of pressure on politicians to do something about ISP prices.

Deregulating broadband at a time when a handful of ISPs have the vast majority of broadband customers was one of the most bizarre regulatory decisions I’ve ever seen. All monopolies, regardless of industry need to be regulated – we’ve known this for over a hundred years. It’s just a matter of time before Congress is forced to step up and re-regulate broadband. It may not be tomorrow, but I find it highly unlikely that broadband will still be deregulated a decade from now, and I expect it much sooner.

The Industry

Big ISPs Raise Broadband Prices

As the new year dawns we are starting to see big ISPs raise broadband prices. One of the more interesting increases is by Comcast. They increased two rates – the rate of standalone broadband and the price of renting a cable modem.

The company now charges $75 per month for a standalone broadband connection that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband of being at least 25/3 Mbps. In many of their markets the minimum speed offered to new customers is faster than this, making the $75 entry price for standalone broadband.

For now it doesn’t look like Comcast increased the cost of bundled broadband, although they just announced that all bundled packages are increasing by $5 per month. But that increase can largely be attributed to increased programming costs. The price for standalone broadband was $65 a year ago, was raised by $5 during 2017 and just went up by $5 again.

The standalone price increase is aimed squarely at cord cutters. This price punishes customers who don’t want to pay for the other services in the various Comcast bundles. This is their way to still extract a lot of margin from somebody who elects to watch video online. I wrote a blog a few months ago that cited a Wall Street analyst that suggested that the company ought to charge $90 for standalone broadband, and it looks like the company is heeding that advice.

To put that price into perspective, Google Fiber and a few others are charging $70 for a standalone symmetrical gigabit connection – 20 times the speed for a lower price. But to really make a fair comparison you also have to consider the Comcast cable modem. They just raised that rate from $10 to $11 per month. The company makes it a challenger for customers who won’t use the Comcast modem, and so the real standalone price for the minimal Comcast broadband product is $86 per month.  It’s not hard to understand why households are beginning to find broadband unaffordable.

The $11 fee for a cable modem is outrageous. Comcast gets these directly manufactured and I am doubtful that they are spending more than $100 per device, and probably less. The $1 price increase adds roughly $300 million to Comcast’s bottom line. In total, the company is billing roughly $3.3 billion per year for all customers for an inventory of modems that probably costed them less than $2.5 billion. And since people tend to keep the modems for a number of years, this rate is mostly margin. Even for a new customer Comcast recovers the cost of the modem within 9 months.

Frontier also has introduced a troubling new price increase for broadband. Rather than increase the advertised price of the product they are adding a $1.99 per month ‘Internet Infrastructure Surcharge.’ This is strictly an increase in broadband rates, and the company is clearly hoping that most people don’t notice or don’t understand this new charge on their bill. For the last few years we have seen cable companies sneak in rates that look like taxes or external fees but which are just a piece of the cable TV bill. It’s disturbing to see this happening with broadband and I suspect other ISPs will begin copying this concept over the next few years.

Cox has also increased data prices, and unlike the above two companies which are trying to mask the broadband price increases, Cox raised all packages that include broadband from $2 to $4 per month.

Broadband prices have never been regulated. There was a minimal threat of price regulation under Title II authority at the FCC, but that’s now gone. I’ve seen a few articles blaming these latest price increases on the end of Title II regulation, but there has never been anything stopping an ISP from raising rates other than market forces. In fact, the FCC has never threatened to regulate broadband rates.

There are two real drivers of these and future broadband price increases. First, broadband is no longer growing explosively since most homes now have a broadband connection. And the publicly traded ISPs are feeling earnings pressure while the loss of cable TV and telephone customers leaves broadband as the only place to increase bottom line margins.

The second major factor is the absence of real broadband competition. In markets where a real competitor like Google shows up the big ISPs come close to matching the lower prices of the competitor. But as houses need faster broadband, the residual competitive pressure from DSL is waning, meaning that in most cities the cable companies are becoming a virtual monopoly. Big ISPs like Comcast will lower rates where they have a good competitor, but they are more than making up for it in markets where they have the only fast broadband.

One consequence of the kind of prices that Comcast is now charging is that, over time, they will induce more competitors to enter the market. But the only real threat on the horizon for the big cable companies is point-to-multipoint 5G. It will be interesting to see if that technology can really work as touted. If 5G is successful it will be interesting to see the pricing philosophy of the ISPs offering the service. They could price low like Google Fiber or else ride the coat strings of the cable companies with higher prices.

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