For literally twenty-five years we've thrown billions in subsidies, tax breaks, merger approvals, and regulatory favors at U.S. telecom giants in exchange for the promise of amazing, competitive, ultra-fast, widely-available broadband (and oodles of high paying jobs). And time and time again, studies show that what Americans got back in exchange was...something notably less than that.
The latest speedtest data from Ookla once again shows that when it comes to broadband speeds, the U.S. continues to be nothing to write home about. The country ranks fourteenth in both wired and wireless broadband download speeds, despite boundless subsidies, rampant "deregulation" (read: doing whatever Comcast and AT&T say to do), a nauseating amount of 5G hype, and lots of promises from industry about the illusory investment benefits of killing net neutrality rules and functioning government oversight.
When it comes to wired broadband, the United States has fallen out of the top ten nations despite the dropping cost of fiber deployments:
On the wireless side, we've never once been in the top ten list. And while we did jump four spots to fourteenth, that's still not great. In large part because U.S. deployments of 5G, despite a ridiculous level of hype, are consistently slower than most overseas deployments:
As always some caveats: speed tests alone aren't the most accurate representation of true network performance, because users are often running tests when there are problems, may not be subscribed to the fastest speed available in their area (often because it's too expensive), or may be testing dodgy WiFi from a bad router halfway across the house. But the problem is that the U.S. rates consistently mediocre to terrible on every meaningful metric that matters, whether it's speeds, coverage, quality of the actual connection, customer service, or, especially, price:
"If we want to talk about international rankings, it's worth noting that the U.S. ranked 21st out of the 26 countries tracked in both standalone fixed broadband price and in mobile broadband price in the FCC's 2020 Communications Marketplace Report, and that's not a departure—it's the norm,” (Dana) Floberg said."
And while geography certainly plays a role, that stopped being a valid excuse a decade or so ago. We've thrown countless billions in favors and tax breaks at these companies in exchange for networks that routinely fail to materialize. I've spent twenty years studying and writing about the U.S. telecom sector and can assure you that regional monopolization and corruption are the primary reason for our continued failures. Canada and the U.S., which both share pretty similar approaches to broadband policy (namely: kiss the ass of regional, ever-consolidating monopolies), see similar outcomes on that front:
Despite the data never supporting it, the narrative du jour in telecom policy is that if you deregulate the sector (read: make telecom regulators so weak they can't hold Comcast and AT&T accountable), miraculous things happen. Despite the data never supporting it, another popular narrative is that you can just throw billions in subsidies at this monopoly logjam to fix it. The reality is U.S. broadband stinks because of monopoly power and the corruption gravy train that protects it from accountability, something U.S. policymakers are rarely willing to acknowledge, much less actually do something about.