A pig in a poke no more: my students rate the ISPs

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The carrier hotel at 151 Front St West, Toronto, the meeting point for dozens of ISPs and other network operators

“75% of respondents to PIAC’s survey did not know the speed tier to which they subscribe even though 83% of consumers identified download speed as very important or somewhat important when choosing an ISP for their home.”  –Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), Ottawa, January 2013 – Transparency in Broadband Advertising to Canadian Consumers (pdf)

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Like the great majority of the online population, even 20-something communications studies majors have little or no clue what they’re buying from their ISP. That’s why we talk a lot about ISPs in my classes. They’re the main contact point for most people with the public Internet. They’re also the key to understanding what broadband is, how regulation works (or doesn’t), and how gatekeeping is exercised.

One challenge in helping undergrads understand how the Internet works (not just the technology, but the policy and business perspectives as well) is that there’s no textbook. Good sources have to be cobbled together, and there’s often a trade-off to be made between what’s topical and what’s authoritative. So when I went looking for a more engaging kind of written assignment a few months ago, I figured why not have the students develop the data themselves. Send them out to the field – well, at least as far as the living room – to find out exactly what they’re getting from their current ISP, then see if they could do better from the competition.

These ISP profiles kill two birds with one stone. They give students an opportunity to learn more about what’s at stake in the business relationship with their ISP, while getting them more comfortable with concepts like bandwidth (comments below based on the original 19 papers completed last June).

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We were astonished to find how difficult it is to wrest information from Rogers and Bell, even about existing accounts. And the more information sources there were, the worse it was.

Each student starts by collecting a number of contractual and technical details about their existing ISP account. They then go shopping for a comparable replacement or upgrade plan from two other ISPs: one from an incumbent (Bell or Rogers) and one from a new entrant (TekSavvy, Acanac, etc). The information is drawn from bills, company websites and calls to customer service reps.

The existing account profile includes everything that defines an Internet plan: platform (DSL or cable); advertised speed (down and up); monthly price; and cap (size and cost). These items are used as benchmarks against which to compare the competing plans. It was a fairly straightforward exercise on paper. But after the first go-round in June, we were astonished to find how difficult it is to wrest information from Rogers and Bell, even about existing accounts. And the more information sources there were, the worse it was. Comments in the reports like these were common:

“Attempting to understand the overage charges on the Bell website was a challenge, and it did not help when I asked [the CSR] about it.”

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A second finding was also related to information barriers: the apples and oranges problem. While the main point of the assignment is to identify “comparable” replacement or upgrade plans from two other ISPs, most students had difficulty finding the information matches they needed to make comparisons. The sources of these comparative difficulties can be grouped thusly:

  • finding matching speed tiers;
  • accounting for the size and cost of caps; 
  • wading through the pricing morass.

First, ISPs offer a jumble of ever-changing speed tiers, which adds confusion to price comparisons while serving no good purpose but upselling. Some students who had a discontinued plan were told there was no way of finding out what their then-advertised speeds were supposed to be. And even when someone did discover a competing plan with the same speeds, most found it impossible to match caps as well – especially after taking into account both the size of caps and cost of overages.

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Most students found fewer issues with add-ons than with the relentless attempts to present monthly prices as discounted.

But these annoyances pale beside the absurd way the incumbents set prices. Advertised prices are never the real prices, and the incumbents make it plenty difficult to figure out what those prices might be. Ironically, most students found fewer issues with add-ons like modem rental than they did with the incumbents’ relentless attempts to present any and all monthly prices as discounted. The two favorite practices here are bundling with other services; and discounting initial fees for several months, then jacking them up by as much as double. As one student wrote:

“I’m on a student plan offered by Rogers so I’m paying $55 monthly. I was surprised to discover this discounted rate only lasted for 9 months (which I was not told when I activated this plan), so my bill will be increasing to $90.99 at the end of this month.”

The sales gimmicks shifted tone for students who spoke with a CSR about switching. One thing about the CSR mandate: their employers badly want them to upsell existing customers and snag new prospects on the first call. That brings two undesirable effects. One, when there’s no reward for answering questions helpfully, questions don’t get answered helpfully. And two, once CSRs get a newbie on the phone, standard procedure is to invoke the day-of deal, a low, low price framed as a once-in-a-lifetime offer that expires as soon as you hang up. It’s not the pressure tactics that raised student hackles, so much as the further confusion this piles on while trying to find the best value for money.

Note on the papers. As the numbers below indicate, the 19 student papers were skewed for current ISP, with Rogers representing slightly more than half (10 of 19). On the other hand, the 2 incumbents and TekSavvy were distributed almost equally among the total ISP selections. We didn’t have an official ranking in this batch, but among those who did rank, TekSavvy was the favorite in 8 of the 11 papers. 

  • Current student ISP (/19)
    • Bell 3
    • Rogers 10
    • TekSavvy 3
    • Other 3
  • Distribution of ISPs selected (/57)
    • Bell 15
    • Rogers 16
    • TekSavvy 16
    • Other 10
  • ISP ranked #1 when choice indicated (/11)
    • TekSavvy 8
    • Rogers 2
    • Bell 1

For the 8 TekSavvy fans, one clear pattern was gratitude for good information:

“Their website is easy to use and I could find all the information I needed.”

“The information I got through calling the company matched what I saw on the website.”

“The [CSR] was very nice. I was not forced into making a decision on the spot. I was kindly sent an email outlining the details of the packages that we talked about. Overall, the experience was very pleasant, informative and refreshing.”

D.E.

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