It’s been a rough few days for people looking for alternatives to their current internet providers.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission issued a report documenting what many of you already know: You don’t have much choice when it comes to broadband. In fact, most of you have only one or no companies selling high-speed internet. Then on Wednesday, a court ruling held the FCC can’t override state laws restricting cities and towns from launching their own broadband services to increase their residents’ provider options.
Neither development should have been that much of a surprise.
Pick one: fast broadband or a wide choice of providers
The FCC’s “Internet Access Services: Status as of June 30, 2015” report, released Aug. 5, leads off with the reassuring news that our download speeds are getting faster. Of the 91 million residential wired connections counted as of last June 30, just over half—52%—hit at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps), the minimum download speed the FCC considers to be broadband. Another 25% ranged between at least 10 Mbps to just below 25 Mbps.
Connections between 3 Mbps and less than 10 Mbps, what amounts to entry-level broadband these days, constituted 17% of the total, and sub-3 Mbps service added up to 6%. The report, based on data broadband providers reported to the FCC, excluded connections slower than 200 kilobits per second.
Unfortunately, many Americans don’t have much choice when it comes to selecting broadband providers in their areas. The FCC found that while 75% of Census blocks (the smallest demographic unit the Census Bureau counts) had three or more 3-10 Mbps residential providers and 63% had three or more 10-25 Mbps providers, just 3% offered at least three broadband sources with speeds of 25 Mbps or faster. That last figure was unchanged from the FCC’s mid-2014 data.
In that 25-Mbps-and-up range, 48% of Census blocks had only one provider available, 30% had none and only 22% had two options.
It’s not all bad news, though. According to a 2010 report, only 4% of Census tracts had three or more internet providers selling at least 4 Mbps service. We’re definitely doing better than that.
The FCC’s latest report indicates that cellular connections vastly outnumbered wired access — they made up 68.8% of total residential connections — but those come with data caps that make them unusable as a primary connection for most home users.
The FCC report also underscored the dominance of cable, which constituted 59% of residential wired connections. Slower phone-based digital subscriber lines had second place at 28%, and fast fiber-optic service — the only technology out of those three to offer upload speeds generally as fast as download speeds — was third at 10%.
Municipal-broadband plans take a hit
Some speed-starved cities and towns have considered getting into the broadband internet business themselves. But that won’t work if their states prohibit them from offering “municipal broadband” or chain any such ventures down with restrictions that make them unviable.
About 20 states have done just that. As a 2015 Pro Publica report outlined, generous campaign contributions from telecom firms to state-level candidates ($870,000 in North Carolina, $921,000 in Tennessee) helped that happen.
Two cities with “muni broadband” services constrained from expansion by state laws — Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C. — asked the FCC to override those bans. In February 2015 the commission voted to do so in the same meeting that saw the adoption of sweeping net-neutrality regulations.
And just like those better-known rules, which ban Internet providers from slowing websites and services or charging a site for faster delivery, the FCC’s preemption of North Carolina and Tennessee laws quickly drew a court challenge. But while the FCC won the net-neutrality case, it lost the municipal-broadband decision.
A three-judge panel at the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that the FCC had no authority to knock down state muni-broadband limits. The commission’s move, Judge John M. Rogers wrote in the court’s opinion, “requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation” — and the provision of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that the FCC cited “falls far short of such a clear statement.”
I can’t say that surprised me. Tech-policy types who favor muni broadband thought last year that this preemption was riskier than the net-neutrality rules, which relied on a more specific branch of telecom law.
Rogers was careful to note the appeal of services like Chattanooga’s EPB, which charges $69.99 for 1 Gbps, and Wilson’s Greenlight, which sells the same speed for $99.95. The former “led to job growth and attracted businesses to the area,” pushed competing providers to cut their rate and made money for the city, while the latter also turned a profit and has won the business of “the top seven employers in Wilson.”
(A study released last month by Tennessee’s economic-development department about the state’s broadband needs endorsed the potential of community broadband and suggested ending the state’s restrictions on it.)
Alas, neighbors of these two cities will have to wait longer to get such fast internet speeds at those rates. FCC chair Tom Wheeler conceded as much in a statement saying the ruling “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”
A longtime advocate of municipal broadband was a little more hopeful. “We are better off for the FCC having pushed this hard to encourage competition,” said Christopher Mitchell, who runs the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s community-broadband initiative. He pointed to the “incredible record” of muni-broadband success now in the public view.
But the court’s ruling now makes it clear that help for this won’t come from Washington. People in states like North Carolina and Tennessee will either need to elect some new state representatives or get their current legislators to pay less attention to Big Telecom. Either way, we may be looking at a longer download time for a better choice in broadband.
More from Rob: