Who doesn't think their Internet and cable bills are too high? For years now, I've been tracking the stories asking why we in the U.S. seem to be perennial sufferers of a certain chronic syndrome: Bills too high, Internet speed too slow.
There are a quite a few studies that show the United States has the slowest Internet speeds in the developed world — and also the highest bills. The divergence is amazing. Compared to France, the UK and South Korea, we have speeds four times as slow and we pay three or four times as much.
Is this comparison fair? One thing to remember — the U.S. is a very big country with a lot of ground to cover. We live spread out, and I can see how that might drive up costs. (That's not an excuse in big cities, though.)
This topic springs to mind from two news items, one you might have heard about — and one you might not have. The big news: Comcast is taking over Time Warner Cable, creating by far the country's largest cable and Internet provider. The company is marshalling an army of lobbyists in D.C. to get the deal past federal regulators.
The smaller news: Recent legislative moves on the state level. Legislators in Utah and Kansas have put forward bills that would make it difficult for cities to run their own broadband networks. These prohibitions are much favored by big cable operators, like Comcast and Time Warner cable; there are already more than a dozen states that have such restrictions.
What unites these two stories is this: The real problem with the quality of our Internet services is that too many cities have already given Internet providers monopoly access — and make it extremely difficult for competitors to come in and lay cable to compete. Satellite is arguably a better service than cable (it's growing, even as cable use is falling); but satellite providers can't provide bundled Internet. And the one Internet service on the ground than can compete with cable is generally a variant of DSL — but that has inferior speeds to cable.
The result is what generally happens when private companies have a monopoly and consumers have nowhere else to go: High prices and poor customer service. That's why so many cable customers give their local cable companies low marks.
Back to the issue of municipal cable: When cities do create their own municipal Internet networks, prices from the commercial outfits come down — as they would when faced with any other competition. The higher speeds and cheaper prices also attract business. One Tennessee businessman found service "eight or ten times cheaper" in Chattanooga after that city created a strong municipal Internet network.
In another development, Google partnered with three U.S. cities to create so-called gigabit networks. (The company says that's 100 times faster than what most Americans have.) Google worked productively with the city governments in Austin, Texas; Provo, Utah; and Kansas City, Kansas; to give their residents state-of-the-art cable, phone and Internet services at reasonable prices.
What's the takeaway? Our Internet service as a country is slow and expensive by any standard. And we need to be on the lookout for any entity — private or governmental — that is standing in the way of improvement.
One thing we can do now, however, is figure out ways to keep our cable and Internet bills as low as possible.
If you get your cable and Internet through a sole local provider, call and threaten to switch to a satellite provider. If there are two Internet providers in your hometown, call your current provider and threaten to switch. Get their best deal. Then, call the other provider and tell them to better it. Some consumers have found that alone can bring some relief.
You're also probably getting dinged for a lot of little fees. One of those is probably for modem rental. Look closely; you may be paying $4 to $7 a month for it. If that's the case, call up your provider and make sure you have the latest and greatest modem. Or, get them to remove the fee.
Next, dip your toe into the water of — gasp — cutting the cord on cable TV. If you're already paying for Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus, you know there are an awful lot of shows available on those services. Between them and YouTube, you can probably find all the entertainment you need.
Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit www.komando.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.