clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Blocking Comcast Is a Start. But if We Want Better Broadband, We Need Much More.

Broadband competition in the U.S. comes in two varieties: Slim and none. That won't work. Maybe Google can help.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Critics of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal made convincing arguments that it would be bad for consumers, and for the media companies that want to deliver stuff to consumers on the Internet.

Astonishingly, Washington listened.

But in the end, killing the Comcast* deal just maintains the status quo. And when it comes to broadband Internet in the U.S., the status quo is pretty lousy: Most people who want high-speed access are stuck with a single provider, with no incentive to provide better speeds, quality or service.

A U.S. Department of Commerce report, produced a few months ago, lays it out clearly. If you define “broadband” as speeds of 25 megabits per second, as federal regulators want to do, only 37 percent of the population has any choice at all when it comes to providers. And most of that group is looking at a duopoly, likely split up between a cable TV company and a telco. Only 9 percent of the country has real choice — 3 options or more.

There’s no way we’d settle for a monopoly or duopoly for wireless service, but somehow we’ve become so used to the situation that there’s almost no complaint about it for broadband. It’s also why it initially seemed like Comcast’s bid would get approved: The company argued, correctly, that if it bought Time Warner Cable it wouldn’t be reducing competition for broadband — because there wasn’t any competition to begin with.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, an unintended consequence of the Comcast bid is that it pushed regulators to adopt net neutrality rules, making it harder — at least for now — for the monopolists and dupolists that control our broadband to abuse that control. But that doesn’t mean they’ll work hard to improve service, or their speed, or lower prices.

In theory, there are regulatory remedies available to help create more competition, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. The Obama administration was able to spend some of its last remaining political capital pushing through net neutrality and stopping this deal. Fixing a cable/telco/broadband regime that’s been in place for decades would take much more work, and I doubt that Obama or whoever succeeds him will have the appetite or inclination for that.

Which leaves us, amazing as it sounds, hoping that Google comes through, with its Google Fiber moonshot.

So far the search company’s limited forays into super-fast Internet delivery (it’s in three cities now, with another half-dozen or so to come) have done exactly what Google has said they wanted them to do — force incumbents to improve their products.

It’s hard to imagine Google actually pushing Fiber through America, and creating real competition city by city. But it’s harder to imagine any other solution. And we need something.

* Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.