We’ve been inundated lately by a deluge of disturbing news about the Silicon Valley Five. I say time for a bracing reminder about the real gatekeepers in digital life — your ISP. You can quit social media. But unless you’re going off the grid to embrace a 19th century lifestyle, you’re stuck at home with an access provider. Which is where the trouble starts.
I’m going to open with a look at how astoundingly unpopular ISPs are in the US, and why that has a lot to do with chronic lack of competition in retail broadband. We’ll then dig into the FCC’s international comparison of broadband speeds and prices as they affect both Canadians and Americans — and compare those comparisons to what Canadian studies have found. We’ll close by looking at how a class assignment I launched a few years ago has given my students a hard-won understanding of the acutely anti-consumer spirit that rules the industry.
The unpopularity contest
The graph above shows the latest ranking for firms operating in the US consumer economy as compiled by the ACSI, the American Customer Satisfaction Index. You’ll notice that the industries occupying the two ranks at the very bottom are Internet service providers, ISPs, and their subscription TV services. Yes, ISPs are more unpopular than airlines, hospitals and banks — more than any other industry in the entire U.S. consumer economy. Continue reading →
As we discussed last time, shopping for an ISP is a fraught endeavor. The numbers you get, if you can get them, never sit still for long. And even if they do, making comparisons between ISPs as you look for a deal is usually all apples and oranges. Ironic when you consider that this kind of competitive product research has become a way of life for North American shoppers, precisely because of how readily information can be obtained online.
The “up to…” gotcha
For their ISP reports, our student investigators had one other task after getting plan details: capturing actual speeds from their current ISP so as to compare them to advertised speeds. Like the other information gathering on this assignment, the speed tests have a dual purpose. One is to sharpen the student’s grasp of technical concepts; the other is to sharpen their assessment of the ISP’s performance.
Tests of the kind we’re interested in typically measure three variables: download speed; upload speed; and latency (see below). One of the tricky features of advertised broadband speeds is that ISPs always qualify them as “up to” – no guarantees. There are many reasons for this, legit and otherwise.Continue reading →
“The CRTC is recruiting up to 6,200 Canadians to help measure the Internet services provided by the participating ISPs. Volunteers will receive a device, called a “Whitebox”, that they will connect to their modem or router. The Whitebox will periodically measure broadband performance, testing a number of parameters associated with the broadband Internet connection, including download and upload speeds.”
On this Commission page, the visitor is offered some details, including how to sign up. In a discussion with some other folks today, there was agreement that the Commission is going to have to work hard to attract mainstreamers who have no technical background. To do so, the project team is going to have to take a more didactic approach, and give up self-congratulatory marketing lingo like a “world-class communication system.” Continue reading →
Fresh evidence from Akamai about Canada’s lousy broadband speeds
Time now for some empirical evidence, featuring Akamai’s recently published State of the Internet report for Q2 of 2014.
Akamai’s Intelligent Platform is a cloud computing technology that operates in some 90 countries around the world. Because of the scale and sophistication of its operations, it collects and analyzes huge amounts of real-time (not advertised) data about broadband speeds and related variables (based on roughly two trillion requests for Web content every day). Akamai includes in its analysis every country from which it receives requests for content from more than 25,000 unique IP addresses. Currently that’s 139 countries.Continue reading →
1 – Data caps. Not quite a breaking news update (on my caps comments at the end of this post), since this story appeared in Ars Technica on March 13. “Time Warner Cable has been offering customers $5 monthly discounts in exchange for giving up unlimited data for the last couple of years, but almost no one has taken the company up on its offer.” In fact, only a few thousand of TWC’s 11.5 million customers have done so.
Here’s the deal: any TWC sub who wants to save the $5 a month can do so by cutting their cap from unlimited to… 30 GB! Jon Brodkin does the math and figures that three months of “excessive” Internet use and that sub loses a year’s worth of savings. The USA’s second most-despised ISP (after Comcast) has a story for that. CEO Rob Marcus claims his customers must value unlimited – duhdoy. Continue reading →
Bricks and mortar with window, Spitalfields, London E1, August 2013
How can the CRTC do a better job?
As I argued in the previous two posts, the CMR doesn’t have a life of its own; it reflects the CRTC’s larger priorities. The big one here is research and evidence-based policymaking. A close second is the Commission’s still awkward fashion of trying to reach out to the little people – i.e. anybody besides the inner circle. Here are my suggestions for how it can do what it apparently wants to do, only better:
1 – Stop wasting money on online consultations. Redeploy it for real consumer research. Online consultations aren’t just a waste of money; they can also be highly misleading. One reason for their being unrepresentative is that online “surveys” of the public can’t reach Canadians who aren’t online to begin with. Unfortunately, the Commission isn’t going to find any new money for research, not as long as it sticks to the current Expenditure Profile. As shown in the graph below, the Commission’s spending is pretty much flat from 2009 to 2016, especially if these figures were converted to constant dollars…
Last time, I described some of the ways in which the CMR has fallen short. I added that the current incarnation of this document marks a sharp departure by reflecting a greater concern for end-user behaviors and consumer welfare. I’ve been looking at the CMR less as a source of information about particular trends, and more as a window through which to gauge how the Commission is allocating priorities (the CMR page is here).
I grouped the details into four areas, and covered 1 and 2 in the previous post:
1- The emphasis on industry vs consumer welfare. That emphasis has changed quite dramatically in the 2013 edition, which stems from the pro-consumer tilt the Commission has taken under the current Chair.
2 – The reluctance to report bad news. This entrenched timidity is still holding back critical discussion. That’s one great advantage the FCC’s structure has: open and sometimes quite vocifeous partisanship, since appointees must include a balance of Democrats and Republicans.
Fresh data show Canada is still a mediocre performer among the dozens of nations measured continuously by Ookla on 5 broadband performance variables. Will the CRTC’s 2013 Communications Monitoring Report, due out this week, keep up the old tradition of pretending Canadian broadband is just fine?
[Sept 24: added pointers to Ookla]
For weeks now, we’ve been pummeled by tales from the wireless wars. As recently as last Thursday, Michael Geist was reminding us how two-faced and hypocritical the incumbents can be, as if that was a surprise. Nothing gets the incumbents foaming at the mouth – behaving like “raving lunatics,” as Tony Lacavera put it – like the prospect of being disciplined by real competition.
I say it’s time to think again about the equally dismal and depressing state of wireline broadband in Canada. Wireline isn’t nearly as sexy as it used to be – not as fodder for controversy I mean. A couple of years ago, we started hearing forecasts from the likes of Cisco pointing to the triumphant rise of mobile everywhere. The mobile forecasts are holding (see Cisco’s mobile forecast for 2012-2017 here). But even 4G LTE isn’t going to make a lot of subs give up their residential DSL or DOCSIS any time soon. So let’s get back to making invidious international broadband comparisons, this time courtesy of Ookla and its ongoing Net Index broadband usage project. Continue reading →