Americans say they’d dump a carrier that slowed their Web traffic. But many can’t leave, even if they wanted.

February 18

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Americans overwhelmingly dislike the idea of having their traffic throttled or blocked. And they're threatening to vote with their feet if Internet providers don't play along.

(Consumer Reports)
(Consumer Reports)

A survey conducted by Consumer Reports finds that 71 percent of U.S. households would be as likely to switch carriers as they would be to put up a stink if their broadband company started fiddling with their Internet speeds. The results suggest consumers are highly sensitive to the fallout of a federal court decision saying regulators can't forbid ISPs from slowing your access to Netflix and other services.

There's little evidence yet to suggest that carriers are actually throttling customer bandwidth. Although Netflix speeds have tanked recently, the slowdown began before the D.C. Circuit court issued its controversial ruling. And in fact, Comcast vowed to obey net neutrality principles as a condition of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, meaning that about 30 million Americans could be protected from Internet throttling at least until 2018.

Consumers are still disturbed by the idea, however, with nearly half saying they'd file a complaint to Congress or to regulators, and a wide majority saying they'd leave their provider rather than wait for their TV shows or video games to be carried across the network.

As with most prospective polls, this one deals in the realm of the hypothetical — one that glosses over the actual options people have in their local broadband markets. In places like Austin, choices are flourishing. But unfortunately for everyone else, Austin is a rare example.


(broadbandmap.gov)

In many places of the country, it's rare to have more than one broadband provider available — the result, as George Washington University's Brent Skorup says, of a decades-old decision to favor economic efficiency over competition. According to data compiled by NTIA, the White House's top telecom advisory agency, 12.4 percent of Americans are served by zero or only one broadband provider, says Duane Anderson, who tracks broadband trends for the Web site broadbandnow.com.

In the Consumer Reports survey, only 10 percent said they'd be willing to forgo the Web entirely if their carrier started restricting their access to sites and services. Since that's what tens of millions of Americans would have to choose as a consequence of abandoning their existing provider, the likelihood that 71 percent of households would in fact follow through on their threat seems rather low. Talk is cheap; action is costly. The carriers are counting on that.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Andrea Peterson · February 18