Maybe we’re doomed. The Verge noticed today that Google’s wireless broadband subsidiary, Webpass, is dropping out of Boston, part of Google’s general retreat from its original, ambitious, nationwide Google Fiber plans.
You could say this is two steps forward, one step back, as Webpass launched in Denver and Seattle last year. But in the larger picture—which includes Verizon halting its Fios rollout years ago, and a US ISP marketplace where 37 percent of people in the 5,000 most populated ZIP codes have only one choice for 25Mbps broadband—there’s very little choice when it comes to affordable, quality in-home service.
For a year now, I’ve been hoping that 5G networks will inject competition into the home ISP market, but those plans appear to be stalled. Let me note: mobile 5G appears to be going great guns; I hear 5G providers talk nonstop about sensors and the Internet of Things. But what I’m hearing about less and less is providing broad pipes at flat, affordable rates to homes with many devices in them.
AT&T has dialed back its home internet plans in favor of mobile. Verizon went from 11 test cities in 2017 to no actual 2017 commercial launches, and “3 to 5” cities in 2018. Starry says it’ll only be able to reach two new cities in 2018. And a report in Fierce Wireless—admittedly, from a study by the cable industry—argues that there’s no way 5G providers will be able to sell gigabit wireless for less than $75/month.
That may still be less than cable companies soon charge for it. Cable rates have been going up every year, and an October analyst’s report suggests that cable broadband will soon cost $90 and up, largely because of people dropping even-more-expensive cable TV packages.
Yes, it’s possible to use mobile internet as your primary home internet, but so far, mobile service providers have been unwilling to offer the gigabyte buckets that American homes generally seek. A 2016 study showed that American homes use, on average, 190 GB/month. Mobile “unlimited” data plans generally de-prioritize you at 22 or 50GB, slowing speeds and choking your connection. That may improve with 5G, but we aren’t going to see broad 5G coverage for at least two more years.
Americans, Save Yourselves
With the large, for-profit companies seemingly uninterested in competing with cable, maybe the only way for Americans to get more ISP choice is to roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.
A recent Motherboard story says 750 communities have gotten fed up and started to build their own networks, even though 20 states have anti-consumer laws protecting for-profit internet providers.
You don’t have to be a city government to do this, either. Small, roll-your-own ISPs like Brooklyn Fiber have cropped up here and there throughout the country. You have to be a network engineer and have some investment money to pull it off, but it’s possible. This Reddit AMA follows a couple in Utah who set up an ISP that breaks even with only 24 users. Here’s another Reddit AMA from the owner of a larger wireless ISP.
The cable monopolies on fast internet may not be legally mandated or an act of nature, but they may also be here to stay unless someone steps up to do something about them. And if Google, AT&T, and Verizon won’t, maybe we have to.