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How Much Broadband Choice Do Americans Have?

Subtitle: A Tale of Two Pictures.

There’s an ongoing debate about the number of Americans with meaningful choice among broadband providers. The answer depends on how you define the terms; it can range from less than half all the way up to 98 percent, although the low numbers demand some creative exclusions. If we limit broadband to wired systems provided by major providers, the answer the National Broadband Map provides is 85 percent, but this depends on a fairly loose definition of “broadband” in some cases. If you’re willing to include fixed wireless, you would have to count WISP connections and Clearwire, but there aren’t any good data on them. If you include mobile broadband, the number goes up to 98 percent, but you’re including service plans that currently have usage caps of 2 – 4 GB/month, which makes them challenging for video streaming but acceptable for web browsing and email. Throw increasingly capable satellite in the mix (Wild Blue now offers 12 Mbps over satellite for a low intro price of $50, but there’s a data cap) and we’re at 99 percent.

The FCC’s Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2011 report issued in February, 2013, illustrates the slipperyness of the data. On page nine, the report shows a graph of wired/fixed wireless competition.

Correct 5a FCC

According to this finding, 94 percent of Americans have access to two or more providers offering 3 Mbps or more, just barely enough for Netflix, but only 32 percent have a choice for speeds greater than 10 Mbps, a nice speed to have.

If we expand the pool to include mobile networks, the picture changes quite a bit, as we see on the next page.

5b FCC

In this scenario, 85 percent of Americans have a choice of three or more providers at 3 Mbps and higher, and 47 percent have two or more providers at 10 Mbps and higher.

Note the date of the data: December 31, 2011. How much LTE was there when this data was captured? Most of it was MetroPCS’s pioneering build and the early stage of Verizon’s build. Today there is probably twice as much LTE that can go 10 Mbps and higher. But those data caps are still in place, so you have to take this with a grain of salt.

So how much competition and choice to America’s broadband users have? Clearly, it depends on how you define the terms, but there’s not really any way around the fact that we have more facilities-based competition than any other country, and that’s what counts. Selling access to an aging DSL network with no upgrade in sight – the norm in much of Europe – is more profitable than investing in fiber backhaul to shorten the copper loop, but not helpful in the long run.


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