The High Cost of US Cellular Broadband

The Finland-based company Rewheel has been tracking cellular prices since 2014. Their latest report looks specifically at the cost of cellular broadband and shows that US prices are among the highest in the developed world. Rewheel specifically focuses on countries in the European Union and countries that are members of OECD (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), which brings in countries in North America and South America and countries like South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The US, Canada and a few other countries are the outliers with the highest broadband prices. The study shows that the average price charged for of a gigabit of downloaded cellular data in the US is just over $6. Nearly half of the countries studied have gigabit prices for less than $1. To put our cellular broadband prices into perspective, US cellular broadband rates are 16 times higher than the average rate in the European Union. What is striking is that the cost per gigabit in the US dropped 11% since 2017 due to carriers increasing the size of data allowances.

The study also correlated broadband prices to the number of cellular competition in a country. In general counties with multiple cellular competitors have lower broadband rates – for instance, countries with three cellular competitors have higher rates than countries with 4 or more competitors. Again, the US with four primary cellular spectrum owners is an outlier compared to other countries with that many cellular companies.

The study doesn’t look at specific reasons for the rates in various countries, or the ramifications for higher or lower prices. However, a lot of the reasons for high prices in the US are well understood:

  • In the US one of the larger costs or providing cellular service is the cost of transport to get data to and from cell sites. The prices charged to cellular providers here is far higher than fiber transport costs in many other companies. The price for fiber transport in the US grew out of the extremely high prices of transport that were billed for decades by AT&T and the other big monopoly telcos, and those prices are still high today.
  • Cellular networks are already overloaded. The cellular companies really don’t want customers to use a lot more mobile data on the cellular networks and hope that most usage gets handed off to WiFi networks. Lower cellular data prices would increase cellular network usage, and the cellular carriers in this country have not invested in the underlying cellular networks to handle greater traffic volumes.
  • The nature of competition here is different than in many other countries. The big carriers in the US have adopted an oligopoly pricing mindset where they compete on things other than price. This is not true just for cellular broadband, but also for landline broadband, cable TV service and most of our telecom markets.

There are a lot of ramifications for having higher cellular broadband prices:

  • Number one is the overall cost of cellular service in the US. The Rewheel study shows there are 14 countries in 2018 where customers can buy a smartphone plan for $34 per month (30 euros) that includes truly unlimited broadband plus at least 1,000 minutes of phone calling. It’s hard for a customer in the US to find a similar plan for under $70. Since practically everybody in the US has a cellphone, the cost of cellular phone bills is a burden on many US families.
  • Several studies over the last year have shown that US cellular customers have grown accustomed to self-limiting their cellular usage. Even customers who buy the so-called unlimited data plans that are capped at 20 GB in monthly download don’t use even half of that data on average. Cellular data caps have taught us to not use cell phone data – a concept that would be foreign in Europe.
  • Because of the high price of landline and cellular broadband, many homes have elected to use their cellphones for broadband since they can’t afford both connections. Such homes are paying far more per GB of data than the rest of us and are further penalized for going over monthly cellular data caps.
  • There are many homes in the rural US where cellular data is the only broadband option (other than satellite which most have tried and rejected). I hear stories all of the time in my travels in rural America where households with schoolkids are spending $500 or more per month on cellular data. The big cellular companies are gladly taking their money and haved no incentive to find an affordable option in rural America,