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 →
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)
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. Continue reading →
“We can’t have a situation in which the corporate duopoly dictates the future of the Internet and that’s why I’m supporting what’s called net neutrality.” — Barack Obama, podcast, June 2006
[June 19: So much for pruning – added 300 words in corrections and background.]
On Friday, June 13, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a short but dramatic statement headlined Broadband Consumers and Internet Congestion. Though barely 450 words long and presented outside any formal setting, Wheeler’s reaction to the public hue and cry over the reliability of retail broadband in the US marks an important step forward for end-user welfare. His announcement puts the lie to the vehement criticisms levelled at him about his betrayal of the Open Internet concept (the FCC’s term of art for net neutrality).
Many of his critics also assumed that the Wheeler FCC would never look into paid peering arrangements – well, they actually said they wouldn’t (“… the rules we propose today reflect the scope of the 2010 Open Internet Order, which applied to broadband provider conduct within its own network.” NPRM, fn 113 – pdf uploaded here). That is what Wheeler has now directed Commission staff to do (request “information from ISPs and content providers”).
While the American public are clearly confused by the net neutrality debate, and for good reason, many ISP subscribers have begun to question whether they’re getting the broadband they’re paying for – whatever the underlying business and technical issues may be. Excerpts from Wheeler’s statement follow (the full pdf is uploaded here):
“For some time now we have been talking about protecting Internet consumers. At the heart of this is whether Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that provide connectivity in the final mile to the home can advantage or disadvantage content providers, and therefore advantage or disadvantage consumers. …
“Consumers must get what they pay for. As the consumer’s representative we need to know what is going on. I have therefore directed the Commission staff to obtain the information we need to understand precisely what is happening in order to understand whether consumers are being harmed. …
“The bottom line is that consumers need to understand what is occurring when the Internet service they’ve paid for does not adequately deliver the content they desire, especially content they’ve also paid for. In this instance, it is about what happens where the ISP connects to the Internet. It’s important that we know – and that consumers know.”
Last Wednesday was the deadline for followup comments on Ben’s Part 1 application, more accurately described as a complaint. In the text below you’ll find the main body of my intervention, minus the top and tail. I wrote about Ben’s original filing back in November: Ben Klass asks CRTC to stop Bell’s deliquency on Mobile TV. As of today, Ben’s current filing hasn’t yet shown up on the Commission’s site: I’ve uploaded it here. Of the other interventions filed this past week, two were especially critical of what Bell is being allowed to get away with. Teresa Murphy starts her comments by suggesting that Bell’s whole argument is founded on a phony distinction (para 2: her pdf is uploaded here):
It makes no sense whatsoever to treat competing services differently when the underlying technology and distribution method is the same. This is allowing vertically integrated companies to behave by one set of rules, and allowing them to treat their competitors differently, and frankly unfairly.
Infographic released by TekSavvy in February, from omnibussurvey by IDC Canada
(Please see previous post for the setup to this one)
In early February, TekSavvy released the results of five survey questions fielded by IDC Canada on its behalf, which probed for attitudes to Internet service among Canadians. In keeping with its White Knight role, the maverick ISP is not only going Ottawa one better on the research. TekSavvy also took the opportunity to launch a new tool to help customers navigate the decisions involved in choosing a particular access plan. They call it Find Your Plan and apparently people like it.
I spoke recently about this initiative to Tina Furlan, TekSavvy’s Director of Marketing and Communications, and the brains behind last year’s dramatic rebranding. The two main questions on my mind concerned a) why her team decided to plunge into the research game, and b) were they surprised by the results. Tina points out that TSI’s subscriber base across Canada (for all services) is now close to 270,000. Naturally, with that kind of growth, its traditional customer base of younger, techie males has broadened into a more mainstream and technically unsophisticated group, the very end-users who are especially puzzled and frustrated by all the bafflegab ISPs usually throw at them. Continue reading →
Infographic released by TekSavvy in February, from omnibus survey by IDC Canada
How much do you pay each month for Internet access? What speed tier are you on? What’s the size of your data cap? Is it measured in bits or bytes? Can you complain to the CRTC about your ISP? Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?
We get the ISP we deserve
To the wonks with a vested professional interest in these questions, it’s hard to believe most people don’t know the answers – in fact, don’t know what the questions mean in the first place. Part of the puzzle comes down to a simple matter of caveat emptor: why would anyone pay year in and year out for a pig in a poke? Especially when that particular pig keeps growing in importance. We all pursue a wide range of critical activities online, like education, government services and job searching. We’re also spending more and more money on communications services (as the CRTC noted last fall, Canadian families spent an average of $185 each month on communications services in 2012 , up from $181 the previous year). Continue reading →