Broadband Prices: Bernie Sanders and His Gang of Four Are Out of Touch

Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back in 1992, US president George HW Bush stumbled over a grocery store price scanner on his way to re-election. Touring a grocers’ convention, Bush gazed in “wonder,” according to the New York Times, at technology well-known to everyone else. Bush went down in history as “out of touch”  with the real America — and as a one-term president.

How much more out of touch than that do you have to be to assert that “just 37 percent of Americans have more than one option for high-speed broadband providers?”

That’s what US Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Al Franken (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Edward Markey (D-MA) claim in a letter to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The Senators want Wheeler to investigate what they consider unduly high prices in the cable industry for both television and Internet services.

Their sketchy statistical claim results from concentrating solely on local cable monopolies (which are indeed a bad thing) to the exclusion of satellite TV and Internet companies, DSL and television services offered by phone companies, and cellular Internet.

If the Senators answered their own doors and phones and emptied their own mailboxes now and then, they might understand the situation better.

I live in a suburban area, verging into rural. Fortunately, cable reaches my home, and based on my own needs (my family uses LOTS of bandwidth), I chose the local cable monopoly (Cox) for television, Internet and phone services. But my recycling bin overflows with junk mail begging me to switch  to AT&T U-Verse, Dish Network, DirecTV, a local satellite TV/Internet outfit, or one of several cellular providers. Not to mention the telemarketing calls and door knocks.

I have choices coming out my ears (in addition to all those listed, I can carry my laptop to nearly any business district and suck down all the free Wi-Fi I want). Based on a quick review of coverage maps, I’m confident that nearly 100% of my fellow Americans do as well. Some providers offer more or less. Some charge more or less. Which is cool, since people’s needs vary.

Why the sudden crocodile tears over cable Internet pricing? And  why from these four, of all people?

A few weeks ago, Sanders blamed child hunger in America on the availability of too many brands of deodorant. Now he’s concerned over too few brands of TV and Internet access.

All four Senators volubly supported increasing Internet access prices for “the little people” when they backed the FCC’s recent Title II “net neutrality” power grab. Bandwidth infrastructure costs. Since providers can’t charge bandwidth hogs like YouTube and Netflix a la carte to cover those costs, every end user (including your grandmother, who checks her email once a day and looks at a few funny pictures of cats) is going to end up paying more.

The Gang of Four didn’t care about the little people’s Internet bills then. Why should we believe they do now? To put it bluntly, I don’t.  Neither should you.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • Franklin Kramer

    I live in Champaign, Illinois, where the University of Illinois is located (so there are lots of people here). If we want broadband we only have Comcast. Here’s one way to look:
    http://internetprovidersbyzip.com

    Keep in mind that, by definition, “broadband” is at least 25Mbps (http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/29/7932653/fcc-changed-definition-broadband-25mbps), so a lot of the providers that show up don’t provide broadband. And in your quote from Sanders he explicitly says “high speed broadband”. My ZIP is 61820 if you want to look me up.

    You say that you chose the monopoly ISP because your family uses lots of bandwidth. I am in a similar position. I hate Comcast. They have tried to screw me over multiple times. But I use them because I need high speed Internet and they are literally the only option that provides that.

    This is exactly what these people are saying- if you want high speed broadband, millions of Americans only have one company to choose from.

    • Well, there’s Volo, which offers super-fast fiber Internet to much of Champaign (they ask for full address, not just ZIP, for coverage information, so I don’t know if you are in their coverage area).

      UC2B/ITV-3’s ZIP code locator says they offer service in your ZIP code. You can choose variable speed packages up to 200Mbps.

      It’s worth noting that the FCC only upgraded its definition of broadband to 25Mbps this January, up from 4Mbps since 2010.

      Are there things about cable that suck? Absolutely (and everyone I know who’s stuck with Comcast tells me they’re the worst). I curse my bill every month. When I moved here, I considered moving closer into town because there’s a fiber Internet service. But cable was what I went with as a compromise — I pay more, but I get more.

      I would love to see the cable monopolies ended. Instead of giving one company permission to string lines on public poles, a city or county could string the lines themselves, then lease the bandwidth to all comers. There’s no reason that two or three or more competing companies can’t all run their stuff through the same pipes, to be differentiated at point of service.

      • Franklin Kramer

        Volo is business only, not residential. UC2B is an up and coming service (specifically created as a nonprofit to combat comcast) but they don’t build fiber in any areas until they have 50% buy in- right now they are only in a couple square blocks across Champaign and unfortunately interest has slowed significantly. I’m on their waiting list but not too hopeful.

        Your hypothetical solution is great, but unfortunately, I don’t think it is realistic in practice due to time and costs. I say this mostly because if it was I would expect that the cities or counties already would have!

        • Franklin,

          Volo may have changed since the last time you checked. Their web site now boasts “Transform the way your household uses the Internet, TV, and phone! Sign up for Volo’s superfast fiber-based Internet today!”

          Personally I wish I could come up with something better than my hypothetical solution, as I hate to see the government in charge of anything. But Chattanooga’s experience with doing Internet as a “public utility” through its power company does look nicer than handing out a “private sector” monopoly.

          My hypothetical runs along the lines of the way electricity used to be sold in Houston, Texas. There was one set of power lines, but two competing power companies (one government-operated, one private sector). They both used the same grid, but any customer could choose his provider, and change if he didn’t like the service he was getting (price competition was against the rules, so they competed on customer service — but I don’t see why there couldn’t be price competition too).

  • Ester

    Thanks Franklin for the great info. There are number of websites letting you find and compare Internet service providers in your area. http://www.ispprovidersinmyarea.com is one I found and recommend for number of ISPs they have. I was surprised to see so many options for providers available in my neighborhood. Easy to compare prices and speeds.