Why People Love The Internet But Hate The Companies That Sell It

In the latest update of its survey of American consumers about the businesses they use most, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) tested Internet service providers for the first time. 

It didn’t go very well.

They came in last place out of 43 industries, behind airlines, the postal service, and health insurance. ISPs made up a third of the top 15 worst-rated companies in the entire survey. 

Most people who have had to set up Internet service at a new apartment or home, get that monthly bill, or have interacted with the call centre or customer service people of a telecom giant have some idea as to why.

Everyone’s heard a horror story about billing issues, repair people who never show, or inexplicable outages. 

But the ACSI also breaks down the particular things that bug customers most. Scores are out of 100, and range from bad on reliability and quality to worse on available options and service: 

Telecoms dissatisfaction

All of that’s symptomatic of a bigger problem. Many companies have near monopolies in certain regions of the country. They own the pipes, so they have little, if any competition.

That means they don’t have much of an incentive to improve anything, to spend much money on providing good service, or offer a variety of options. People can’t really switch.

That’s especially true when the service is as vital as high-speed Internet access is in our daily lives. Mobile devices are increasingly replacing PCs, but it gets mighty expensive to consume all of your Internet that way. 

In an interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm, Cardozo School Of Law Professor and communications policy expert Susan Crawford broke down the problem (via bgr.com):

“If you’re in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, really your only choice for wired high-speed Internet access at home is Comcast,” she said. “If you move into an apartment in Seoul [South Korea], you have a choice of three different providers, they show up in a day because there’s so much competition, and they charge you $30 for TV and everything. Koreans when they come to the United States … actually laugh at us for how expensive and how slow [American Internet service] is.”

Some markets have increased competition. New York, for example, has seen Verizon (which uses faster fibre optic technology vs. cable) enter a market dominated by Time Warner. That’s good news for consumers, because Verizon comes out on top of the rankings, and that may push Time Warner to improve its service: 

The ACSITo give context on how low those scores are, every company except for Cox (still included for their cable TV service) and Verizon has one of the 15 worst scores out of any of the hundreds that the ACSI covers. 

Even if competition grows slightly in some places, most people will still have little choice, and little hope for near-term improvement. There’s some hope for the future though. Google fibre is building out ultra high-speed Internet in a select few cities that should force some action. 

More will come with time, and these companies will have to improve or get knocked out of business.  

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