That 20 Mbps Broadband Line We Promised? It’s Actually 300 Kbps. Enjoy!

Did you know that U.S. ISPs in uncompetitive markets are really, really shitty at their jobs? While I assumed that was pretty common public knowledge by this point, there’s an interesting new groundswell of attention being paid to the fact that most ISPs are absolutely abysmal at communicating 1: what real-world speeds a user can get; and 2: whether users can actually get service at all. Case in point was the recent, Kafka-esque experience of a new Washington homeowner, who spent months being given the runaround by Comcast and CenturyLink regarding service the companies repeatedly (but falsely) promised was available.

This week, another story is making the rounds that highlights how ISPs will often claim to offer one speed, then actually offer users something dramatically more pathetic (if you can get connected at all). This user in Michigan, for example was told by AT&T’s website and employees repeatedly that he should be able to get 20 Mbps at his address — only to discover that the top speed he could get was a not-so-brisk 300 kbps. Such circa 1999 speeds are of course well below the FCC’s new 25 Mbps broadband definition, changed to highlight the notable lack of U.S. competition at higher speeds.

Given that AT&T likely doesn’t see any competition in the user’s market, that 300 kbps isn’t just slow, it’s unreliable and suffers from the more-than-occasional hiccup. Similarly, no competition means AT&T doesn’t have great motivation to upgrade its outdated internal databases, or improve customer service. The lack of competition and regulatory capture in so many of these states makes communicating with AT&T (or getting regulators to care about broken promises) a Sisyphean endeavor:

“I’ve complained to just about everybody, the FCC, the FTC, the Michigan Public Service Commission,” Mortimer said. “I got a call back from the office of the president of AT&T responding to my FCC complaint. All I got was, ‘sorry, Mr. Mortimer, the speeds are the fastest available at this time.’” Since Ars first spoke with Mortimer in January, he suffered several more frustrations with AT&T. In one incident, his Internet service was shut off after an auto-payment error, he said. In another mishap, AT&T raised his bill from $33 to $89.40 after adding a phone line to his Internet service, even though he never asked for phone service.”

While we generally like to cling to the narrative that broadband connectivity in the States is bad but getting better (thanks to gigabit deployments and Google Fiber), the reality is that in many areas, it’s getting worse. The story forgets to mention that AT&T and Verizon are hanging up on unwanted DSL users like these they don’t want to upgrade so they can focus on more profitable (read: capped) wireless services. AT&T’s so disinterested in the DSL market right now, it’s actually turning away eligible customers eager to give them money, and hoping that many of the DSL customers it has get frustrated and leave. Verizon, meanwhile, is taking an even classier route: waiting until natural disasters strike, then refusing to repair DSL and phone customer lines it no longer wants.

The good news is that once you’re actually connected at the speed your ISP advertises, more often than not you’ll be able to reach those speeds consistently. An annual FCC study informed by custom firmware-embedded routers shows that most ISPs (with the exception of most DSL providers) deliver the speeds they advertise. The FCC has been naming and shaming ISPs that don’t with fairly good results. Still, these DSL lines nobody wants to upgrade are going to be a notable problem going forward. And with billions of subsidies already thrown at companies like AT&T and Verizon over the last generation to avoid exactly these problems, people are justifiably skeptical that throwing more federal taxpayer dollars at these markets is actually going to help things.

That’s of course where municipal broadband and the FCC’s push to eliminate protectionist state laws comes in. Poorly-served towns and cities need the right to craft their own, flexible and customized broadband solutions in cases of market failure — whether that’s a publicly-owned fiber ring or a public/private partnership with somebody like Google. Instead, we’ve watched as the same telcos that don’t even want to serve many of these DSL customers — pass protectionist law preventing these communities from doing anything about it. We’re only just starting to see this logjam starting to break, but it’s going to take a lot more work to get many of these broadband black holes out of the grip of mega-ISP apathy.

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