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David Lazarus: Americans are paying more for broadband speed but getting less

The New York Attorney General’s Office sent letters to Time Warner Cable, Verizon Communications and Cablevision asking why some customers experience reduced download speeds.
The New York Attorney General’s Office sent letters to Time Warner Cable, Verizon Communications and Cablevision asking why some customers experience reduced download speeds. Associated Press file

It’s one of the biggest rackets of the telecom world – broadband Internet access touted as being “up to” a certain speed but that’s really a whole lot slower.

You think you’re buying cyber-lightning. What you’re likely getting instead is a gentle digital breeze.

The New York Attorney General’s Office said enough’s enough. In letters dated Oct. 23, it asked Time Warner Cable, Verizon Communications and Cablevision why some customers experience reduced download speeds.

“Many of us may be paying for one thing and getting another,” New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said.

He said many families in his state pay “a huge cost” for broadband service. “I will not tolerate a situation in which they aren’t getting what they have been promised,” Schneiderman said.

The problem is by no means limited to New York. Californians and denizens of most other states pay some of the highest broadband prices in the world for speeds that frequently eat the dust of faster services abroad.

Jonathan Kramer is a former cable engineer and now managing partner of the Telecom Law Firm in West Los Angeles. He specializes in making sure that clients receive the telecom services they buy.

Kramer told me he has an up to 10-megabit-per-second broadband connection from Time Warner Cable at his home in Santa Monica. Experts say this is the minimum speed required for watching movies, playing games or performing other data-intensive online activities.

“Often I’ll get that much,” Kramer said. “But I’ve seen it as poor as half of what I’ve been sold.”

Nevertheless, he thinks the New York Attorney General’s Office will have its work cut out for it if the state’s top prosecutor wants to hold broadband providers’ corporate feet to the fire.

Promises may be made. But the service contracts are written to carefully undo those promises.

Jonathan Kramer, a West Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in making sure clients get the telecom services they buy

By selling high-speed Internet access that’s “up to” a certain level, Kramer said, the companies have given themselves plenty of legal cover for all the times they fail to meet customers’ expectations.

“Those two weasel words are very important to protect telecom operators,” he said. “Promises may be made. But the service contracts are written to carefully undo those promises.”

A spokeswoman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to comment on whether the state might join New York in investigating broadband speeds.

If the companies targeted by New York officials are anxious or nervous, they’re not showing it.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the attorney general to resolve this matter,” said Dennis Johnson, a Time Warner Cable spokesman.

“Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” said John Bonomo, a company spokesman.

Sarah Chaikin, a Cablevision spokeswoman, said her company’s service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds.”

Legally speaking, the companies may have reason for confidence, even cockiness. But from a global-competitiveness perspective, they have nothing to crow about.

There’s a lack of meaningful competition in most parts of the country.

Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group

The U.S. ranks 20th in the world for average broadband speed, according to a recent report by networking firm Akamai Technologies.

The average U.S. download speed of 11.7 megabits a second is about half the average speed in South Korea and is significantly less robust than the broadband experiences of people in Hong Kong, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland.

Yet “customers in the U.S. still tend to pay more than their peers in Asia and Europe for comparable broadband Internet service,” the Open Technology Institute said in a report last year.

Fifty bucks a month will get Los Angeles residents an average download speed of 35 megabits a second, the institute found.

That same $50 will score more than twice as much broadband speed in Dublin, Prague, London and Copenhagen. In Paris and Tokyo, $50 will buy you average speeds nearly six times faster than in L.A.; and in Hong Kong, the speed will be more than eight times faster.

Put another way, people in L.A. have to pay twice as much as folks in London for the same broadband service and almost six times more than people in Paris and Tokyo.

“There’s a lack of meaningful competition in most parts of the country,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group. “That’s a big reason our costs are so high, and telecom companies aren’t worried about improving speeds.”

There are other factors at work. It’s much easier to wire a relatively small place like Singapore or Hong Kong than a sprawling country like ours. Also, the more people using a cable network, the slower things go. Fiber networks such as Verizon’s FiOS don’t seem to have that problem.

Moreover, no matter how much a service provider upgrades a network, if the wiring and the router in the home aren’t up to snuff, data can slow to a crawl before reaching the finish line.

That said, we can do better. A lot better.

Ask your service provider how much “up to” speed you’re paying for. Now go to a free online test site such as Speedtest.net to see how fast your connection really is. I’m guessing you’ll agree that the whole idea of “up to” speeds is misleading at best and, at worst, an act of fraud.

What’s needed instead is a requirement that broadband be marketed by each provider’s average monthly speed in a particular region, with companies submitting test data to the Federal Communications Commission at regular intervals.

This would provide consumers with a far better sense of what they’re buying and would offer a much more accurate yardstick of each broadband service’s performance. It also would boost competition and network investment by encouraging service providers with faster average speeds to promote their edge over rivals.

Or we could just keep paying through the nose to stay in the slow lane. Take your choice.

David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist. He answers consumer questions. Contact him: david.lazarus@latimes.com or @Davidlaz. Read more by Lazarus at fblinks.com/laz.

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