Does The U.S. Have a Broadband Monopoly Problem?

Grounded Reason maintains a page where readers can search for internet options by zip code. To power this search engine, we routinely gather information on internet service provider (ISP) coverage from the FCC. Unfortunately, many readers are upset upon learning the lack of internet options in their area.

Two times a year internet service providers are required to report the which areas of the country they cover. We at Grounded Reason decided to take this data and see how many areas of the country have a choice when it comes to choosing their broadband provider.

How Many Have a Choice of Internet Provider

We looked through 70 millions rows of FCC data to see how many ISPs provide at least 25 Mbps of download bandwidth to each census block. Here are the results

ISPs in Populated Census Blocks

Providers w/ 25 Mbps down% of Census Blocks
4 or more2.8%

We understand that not every census block is populated. However, we only considered census blocks that had wired internet service being delivered to customers and ignored non-residential blocks in the FCC data.

The data ultimately shows that 30% of the country do not have access to reasonable broadband speeds. 27.9% of U.S. census blocks have access to less than 25 Mbps of bandwidth. Furthermore, the majority of the U.S. are stuck in a broadband drought or monopoly with only one provider. Only about 32% of the country has two or more internet providers to choose from that deliver at least a 25 Mbps download speed.

ISPs With Regional Broadband Monopolies

The chart below shows the percentage of a providers service area where they are the only ISP providing broadband (25 Mbps.)

ProviderArea in Monopoly
Cable One62.80%
Century Link14.77%

The data we examined contained over a thousand ISPs. The chart above only shows the largest providers. However, the cable vs. insurgent telecom companies theme continues throughout the data.

As you can see cable companies like Charter, Cox, Cable One, and Altice have a regional monopoly in more than half their service area. While telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T are typically overbuilding networks to compete in densely populated census blocks, dominated by cable provided ISPs.

Verizon Fios pushing into Comcast’s Mid-Atlantic territory over the past two decades is the main reason Comcast has a monopoly in only about a third of their service area. However, expansion of telecom internet into monopoly areas has all but ceased. The most densely populated areas have been overbuilt, and the remaining monopolized census blocks don’t justify private investment.

Most telecom companies have shifted investment toward 5G. However, much of the hype around 5G fixing our internet woes is greatly exaggerated. 5G home internet requires a lot of fiber to get the wireless signals from the towers. Therefore, 5G follows the same population density investment incentives that wireline does.

Ultimately, the U.S. may need to look outside private investment if we want to fix our broadband woes.

The FCC Broadband Data

This data is available through the FCC’s open data website. The information was released on September 10th, 2019 and covers ISP data up until June of 2018.

ISPs report this data to the FCC twice a year on FCC form 477. This form captures each census block they cover, the bandwidth they provide to that area, and related information. A census block has a minimum size requirement of 30,000 square feet (.69 acres,) with no maximum size. The optimal U.S. census block contains about 40 people.

We didn’t include satellite and fixed wireless in the data for the following reasons.

  • Satellite internet has a meager monthly data allowance making it not viable at speeds over 25 Mbps.
  • Fixed Wireless solutions speed data is currently unreliable. However, most providers delivering 25 Mbps exist in areas where ISP options exist.

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