You already knew that home broadband competition is sorely lacking through much of the US, but a new report released today helps shed more light on Americans who have just one choice for high-speed Internet.
Comcast is the only choice for 30 million Americans when it comes to broadband speeds of at least 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream, the report says. Charter Communications is the only choice for 38 million Americans. Combined, Comcast and Charter offer service in the majority of the US, with almost no overlap.
Yet many Americans are even worse off, living in areas where DSL is the best option. AT&T, Verizon, and other telcos still provide only sub-broadband speeds over copper wires throughout huge parts of their territories. The telcos have mostly avoided upgrading their copper networks to fiber—except in areas where they face competition from cable companies.
“Market is broken”
“The broadband market is broken,” the report’s conclusion states. “Comcast and Charter maintain a monopoly over 68 million people. Some 48 million households (about 122 million people) subscribe to these cable companies, whereas the four largest telecom companies combined have far fewer subscribers—only 31.6 million households (about 80.3 million people). The large telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America—their DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds—despite years of federal subsidies and many state grant programs.”
The ILSR report is based on the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data; ISPs are required to identify the census blocks in which they provide residential or business Internet service and the maximum speeds offered in each block.
The Form 477 data “overestimates actual broadband availability and ISPs’ service areas,” because it counts an entire census block as served even if an ISP offers service to just one resident in the block, the report notes. But the ILSR said it found no better alternative, and ISPs have resisted efforts to make the data more accurate.
The report includes deployment data for cable, fiber, DSL, and fixed wireless broadband. The report excludes satellite Internet “because the technology is highly dependent on terrain and weather, has very poor latency, and is often more expensive than terrestrial ISPs.” Mobile broadband also is not included because the report focuses on home (or “fixed”) Internet service, rather than smartphone coverage.
The most recent Form 477 data is from December 2016, so the numbers in this article aren’t fully up to date. As we’ve reported, the data showed that 30 percent of developed census blocks have just one ISP offering speeds at least as fast as the FCC’s broadband standard of 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps uploads. In 13 percent of developed census blocks, there were zero providers offering speeds that fast.
Comcast and Charter
Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable company and broadband provider, offers service to about 110 million people in 39 states and Washington, DC.
“All of these people have access to broadband-level service through Comcast Xfinity, but about 30 million of these people have no other option for broadband service,” the ILSR wrote.
Comcast’s broadband subscribers included 25.5 million households, or about 64.8 million people, based on the average US household size of 2.54 people.
Charter, the second biggest cable company after Comcast, offers service to 101 million people in 45 states. 22.5 million households covering about 57.2 million people were subscribing to Charter Internet, according to the numbers cited by the ILSR.
Like Comcast, Charter offers broadband-level speeds throughout its territory. “About 38 million [people in Charter territory] have no other option for broadband service,” the report said.
Comcast and Charter generally don’t compete against each other. They have a combined territory covering about 210 million people, yet the companies’ overlapping service territory covers only about 1.5 million people, according to the Form 477 data cited by the ILSR. The overlap is mostly in Florida, where Charter purchased Bright House Networks, and may be overstated because an entire census block is counted as served even if an ISP offers service to just one resident in the block.
AT&T, Verizon, and other telcos
The numbers look a lot different when you switch from cable to DSL and fiber providers. AT&T is the biggest such provider, offering Internet service to 122.5 million people in 21 states. But nearly all of that is DSL or fiber-to-the-node, as AT&T was offering fiber-to-the-home to just 7.8 million people as of the December 2016 data, the ILSR report said.
The report continues:
About 53.7 percent of people (65.8 million) in the total service area have access to broadband-level service through AT&T. Of these people, 745,000 have no other option for broadband service. The data suggests that AT&T has almost exclusively upgraded its networks to offer broadband-level service only in areas where it faces competition.
In other words, AT&T has installed fiber or at least broadband-level speeds in many areas where it competes against cable companies, but it generally hasn’t bothered to do so in areas without competition.
Verizon, meanwhile, offers Internet service to 55.2 million people. “The DSL service area covers 47.7 million people, but the FTTH (fiber-to-the-home) service area covers 33.3 million people,” with significant overlap, the report said.
About 33.5 million people have access to broadband speeds from Verizon. Of those, “approximately 185,000 people have no other option for broadband service,” the report says. “This means that FiOS has almost exclusively been deployed to areas where it faces cable competition.” Verizon had 7 million households subscribing to its Internet service.
The report also covers CenturyLink and Frontier. CenturyLink offers Internet service to 49.1 million people, but its fiber-to-the-home service is only available to 3.8 million.
“About 47.9 percent of people (23.5 million) in the total service area have access to broadband-level service through CenturyLink and approximately 1 million people have no other option for broadband service,” the report said.
CenturyLink’s subscribers include about 5 million households covering about 12.7 million people.
Frontier’s DSL service area covers 30 million Americans, while its fiber-to-the-home territory covers 10 million people.
“About 38.7 percent of people (12.6 million) in this service area have access to broadband-level service through Frontier,” the report said. “Approximately 59,000 people have no other option for broadband service. These data suggest that Frontier has invested in faster services almost solely where it faces competition and not in more rural areas.”
Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.