You’ve heard the rumors. Providers brag about lightning fast speeds, and streaming in HD without a whisper of latency. But where is this miraculous Internet service of your dreams? One that will allow you to live a fantasy digital life in the wonder of the cloud. The lone Internet Service Provider (ISP) provider in your area seems to bog down at the first sign of traffic, and if tech support tells you to reboot your modem one more time, you’re going to scream. Why isn’t there more choice and competition among Internet providers in your area? This isn’t an isolated issue. Most regions of the country are serviced by just a handful of big name broadband providers. Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable have massive footprints that loom over an inordinately large part of the map. When the FCC was considering approving a merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable back in 2015, The Huffington Post warned that we would be facing “The United States of Comcast”. Today’s ISP map isn’t too far off that assessment, with four major ISPs eating up tremendous slices of the high-speed Internet market. Statistics from the FCC indicate nearly 30 percent of Americans don’t have a choice when it comes to their Internet provider. Another large portion of the public, which estimates place at 37 percent, only have two options. To get a better handle on what Internet service across the United States looks like, visit the National Broadband Map, maintained by the FCC and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration). How did we end up here, with limited choice and virtually no competition in large swathes of the United States? To answer that, you’ll need to understand how the Internet reaches your home. It’s a complicated digital exchange through a labyrinth of networks and providers that you’ve likely never heard of. Follow me down the rabbit hole for a minute, my friend and I promise you’ll emerge a savvier Internet consumer.  

How does the Internet get to your home?

Unlike the claims of some politicians, the Internet does not reach you through a series of tubes. It begins on the global level through a Tier 1 network– cable wires that cross continents and oceans, conveying digital pulses of light. Chances are, these do not belong to your local ISP. Much of this major infrastructure is owned by global companies like AT&T who then lease usage of those Internet pipelines to Tier 2 providers. Tier 2 providers are the major telecommunications companies across the nation that bring Internet from the global pipelines into metro and regional areas. Providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cox pay for transit on these uber fast global lines. Gizmodo gives a more detailed explanation of  Tier 1 and Tier 2 providers for those who might be interested in tracing the convoluted digital handshakes that transmit data from one part of the world to another. Much of the Internet delivered through Tier 2 providers is in fact broadband or DSL because that infrastructure already exists, humming below the ground and delivering your cable TV and phone service. Where your Internet bogs down and service slows is when data passes from these neighborhood hubs into your home. The telecommunications industry refers to this as “the last mile”. Much of this last bit of signal transmission is across ancient lines that have deteriorated over time and no longer support the speeds modern technology requires. Upgrading this piece of the infrastructure is the final challenge in ensuring high-speed Internet reaches every corner of the country, and it’s one of the big reasons there are isolated pockets of only one or two Internet service providers in large areas of the United States.  

Expensive Infrastructure

Upgrading that last mile of Internet infrastructure is a costly endeavor. While the utility poles are public property, the lines and wires are owned by specific companies that may have traded hands dozens of times over the years. If you are receiving DSL Internet, that technology comes into your home on ancient copper phone lines. These are likely the same lines installed nearly a hundred years ago when Alexander Graham Bell first invented the telephone. If you receive broadband internet, your home was likely wired to receive cable TV sometime between the 50’s and the 80’s. Because cable technology is more advanced, Internet via broadband delivers higher speeds. Neither technology approaches the capabilities of fiber-optic, however. The difficulty becomes the cost. DSL and Cable Internet providers utilize existing lines, sometimes paying to lease them from the original companies that still own them. Fiber-optic providers have to start fresh, absorbing the cost of running new lines and connecting each household to the larger network. Once they’ve made this investment, they’ll have to lure away a significant amount of the high speed Internet customers in that area to turn a profit. Cable and DSL providers will often simply undercut the new kid on the block by promoting package deals and bundles that price the fledgling company right out of the market.  

Regional Franchises

To further complicate the matter, there are some legislative actions that have encouraged the sparsity of providers. The 1984 Cable Communications Policy Act allowed cable service to be determined by each municipality. This resulted in a patchwork of regional providers that made cost-effective deals with certain cities, allowing them to control local pockets of service almost exclusively. During the 90’s consolidation of these markets began in earnest. It was more cost effective for smaller companies to merge and create larger entities that could cover a larger area of service. The Wall Street Journal documented how, in a matter of two decades, 40 regional providers coalesced into just four telecommunications giants. At that juncture, the Internet was still a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, but the cable wires that would deliver broadband all across the nation were already in the hands of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, and Cox.

A Natural Monopoly

It has been a perfect storm of expensive infrastructure, legislation, and growing media conglomerates that have resulted in what many industry experts refer to as a natural monopoly. Prohibitive costs and a consolidated network of providers effectively controls the market, making it virtually impossible to foster the healthy competition necessary to ensure better service and reduced costs for the average consumer. Many have argued that to bring cost-effective, high-speed Internet to more Americans, the government will have to intervene not only to incentivize innovation but also to help smaller companies make the necessary investments in infrastructure.   “The great danger to the consumer is the monopoly — whether private or governmental. His most effective protection is free competition at home and free trade throughout the world. The consumer is protected from being exploited by one seller by the existence of another seller from whom he can buy and who is eager to sell to him. Alternative sources of supply protect the consumer far more effectively than all the Ralph Naders of the world.” Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist   Frustrated with your provider and looking to make a change? Use our high-speed Internet provider tool to see a list of providers in your area, compare packages side by side, read real customer reviews, and decide which provider is the right one for you.   [zipfinder]

When you think of high-speed, affordable Internet, you’re usually thinking of cable Internet. Using a coaxial connection, data is transmitted over a cable-based network, making this connection type faster and more reliable than DSL. And while you may not get quite the speed capacity of fiber Internet, cable Internet is typically much less expensive.

Although not as well-known as some of the bigger names in the cable industry, Charter Spectrum provides reliable Internet to more than 6 million customers in 28 states. Keep reading for a more in-depth look at Charter Spectrum’s fast and affordable Internet service.  

One Speed, One Option

Unlike most other Internet providers, Charter Spectrum advertises only one stand-alone Internet package — a plan with speeds up to 60 Mbps at $39.99 per month for 12 months. This one-tier approach may turn off some consumers, but it’s designed to provide fast Internet to all subscribers for one low monthly price. At this speed, multiple users can rely on the same connection to listen to music, stream videos, and download files. Despite being more expensive than several other companies’ basic Internet packages, Charter Spectrum’s Internet service provides several perks. In addition to receiving fast Internet, subscribers get free online protection through Charter’s Security Suite, which includes real-time protection against spyware and viruses, a secure firewall, and more. Charter Spectrum Internet™ plans also provide free access to EPIX online content and a free Internet modem, meaning you can save between $6 and $10 per month on equipment rentals.  

What’s the Best Package Deal from Charter Spectrum?

While the $39.99 package is the cheapest Internet-only option from Charter Spectrum, it isn’t necessarily the best for every situation. Most users find that bundled plans provide better prices and more expansive services than individual packages. When you bundle with other options, the price of Internet drops down to $29.99 — saving subscribers around 25 percent each month. If you need a phone line in addition to your network connection, for example, you’ll pay $29.99 for Internet and $19.99 for Charter Spectrum Voice™  monthly for 12 months. If you are looking to bundle Internet with Charter Spectrum TV™ instead, packages start at $89.98 per month for 12 months. That breaks down to $59.99 for cable — including more than 125 channels, free HD service, and access to more than 10,000 On Demand choices — and $29.99 for Internet. For an even larger package combining TV, Internet, and Voice, the best deal is the Charter Spectrum™ Triple Play Gold package. At just $40 more per month than the above-mentioned TV and Internet plan, the Triple Play Gold package provides 60 Mbps Internet, unlimited nationwide calling, more than 200 cable TV channels, popular premium channels — including HBO®, Cinemax®, Showtime®, Starz®, and others — and HD and DVR service.   Although Charter Spectrum advertises only one stand-alone cable Internet package, the company’s bundled deals will help you save on your monthly costs for a wide range of services. As you evaluate Charter Spectrum’s offerings, check to see which package offers the features you need, rather than choosing based on price alone. If service isn’t currently available to your home, search for another Internet provider that offers the plans you need.   *Pricing and speeds are current as of writing. Pricing and speeds are subject to change. Not all offers available in all areas. Google is currently laying the groundwork to bring fiber optic broadband Internet to most of the U.S., but there’s another company with slightly bigger plans. Arctic Fibre, a Canadian telecommunications company, is working on an undersea, fiber optic cable line that would increase the Internet speeds between the U.K. and Japan. Internet at Lightning Speeds Currently, 99 percent of the trans-oceanic Internet data is transmitted along the bottom of the ocean floor. The goal of this project is to expand the reach into the Arctic area that has yet to be connected, while also increasing speeds between continents. If successful, the fiber optic cable would be the first run along the Northwest Passage. By doing this, the company believes it can cut down transmission speeds for data to 154 milliseconds across the sea. Currently, the fastest rate is 178milliseconds. It might not sound like much, but many companies are so entranced by the idea of cutting transaction speeds, they’ve been happy to invest. The cost of the project is an estimated $850 million dollars. The cable, which measures 15,600 kilometers, would start in Japan near the capital of Tokyo, span diagonally up toward the top of Canada to cross the Atlantic, and end a few miles outside of London. Crews will have to depend on sonar to lay the cable along the ocean floor and keep it from tangling beneath the depths. The cable will have tremendous effects on North American communities lacking Internet, particularly in Alaska and Northern Canada. Connecting the Unconnected One of the largest benefits of the cable would be what it brings to Arctic communities. The actual route hasn’t been decided, but plans are to have it pass through seven Alaskan communities and 25 in Canada that aren’t currently online or have below-average Internet speeds. This would bring high-speed Internet access to close to 100,000 people in areas that haven’t seen it before. Artic Fibre will lay the main cable while Alaskan company Quintillion Networks designs spur lines to offshoot from the main cable and send Internet to more communities along the Bering Strait and North Slope. A Massive Undertaking Arctic Fibre hopes to get the cable up and running by 2016. The cable itself was built during the winter with plans to begin mapping routes this summer. Quintillion CEO Elizabeth Pierce said the directional drilling needed to bury the spur lines safely underwater will begin this summer, with shore stations for the cable being constructed this coming winter. The company doesn’t plan to stop with the cable from England to Japan, as they’re planning to build an overland cable from the North Slope into Fairbanks and Anchorage. The idea is to get as many people in North America online as possible. Alaska, in particular, has also been behind in terms of Internet speeds with many of them topping out at 3 megabits per second. There are still over 20,000 households in the state without access to Internet at all. If all goes as planned, the fiber optic cable should be in working condition by the end of 2016. It’s one pretty giant step toward bringing high-speed Internet to the entire world, leading to bigger things down the road. Photo Credit: Oscar Cotez/Flikr With apologies to Dr. Evil, I have one simple request: Internet with frickin’ lasers. Lasers are cool. The Internet is cool. Combining the two sounds like one of the best ideas since peanut butter and jelly. But, until recently, the problem was that practical industrial lasers have been more sci-fi than not. Now, though, the technology is real. The military is already using a laser communication system, and like all military projects, it has an appropriate acronym: the Enhanced Air Ground Lasercom System (EAGLS). Aoptix, the company that designed EAGLS, claims its laser Internet technology has the potential for 2-4 Gbps speeds, double to quadruple the current fastest speeds available in this country. Technically, Aoptix wants to deliver Internet via laser and radio, as the two technologies have to work literally side-by-side. Each technology is susceptible to different forms of weather interference so together they provide redundancy. Raindrops can affect radio, but not lasers, and fog can affect lasers, but not radio. The company says their dual transmitters can reliably send data up to 10 kilometers between relay towers already built and in place. And in case you’re wondering, the laser operates on a non-visible portion of the light spectrum, so you won’t have to put up with looking into the Eye of Sauron to get a fast connection. Here’s how the laser portion of the transmission works: Sure It’s Cool, But Why This Particular Wireless Tech? Like other companies with fiber network alternatives, Aoptix sees infrastructure cost savings as the primary benefit of wireless networks over fiber. There aren’t miles and miles of trenches to dig or fiber to lay. EAGLS has proven the technology works, and the fact that it can work with existing infrastructure means that implementing the laser/radio broadband network should be very inexpensive. Three U.S. carriers are currently in talks with Aoptix, and the system is already in use with Car-Sa, an Internet provider in Mexico. Aoptix has even installed a laser/radio link between NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange, where an even slightly faster connection can result in increased profits for stock market traders. Unlike other fiber alternatives that require some infrastructure cost, the fact that Aoptix uses existing towers to relay their signals means that this could be a great way to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas that already have radio and cell towers. Installation should require little more than putting transmitter relays on those towers. It’s Okay to Geek Out a Bit With these real-world trials already under way, it shouldn’t take long to determine whether lasers are the answer to the wireless broadband question. But take a step back, and forget the science. Forget the infrastructure. We live in a world where nothing amazes us anymore, and there’s a company installing lasers that will let us interact and share content faster than ever. Sure, it’s always smart to be a bit skeptical over promises of better mousetraps, sometimes it’s hard not to get excited. Especially when lasers are involved. Commercial Internet by laser isn’t available quite yet, but if you can’t wait until it is, enter your zip code below to see high-speed plans that are available in your area. Image by Andrew Adams/Flickr [zipfinder] When you think of communities leading the way of Internet connectivity, your thoughts probably lean toward tech hubs like the Silicon Valley, big cities like LA, Chicago, and New York, and cultural centers like Austin and Portland. But one of the real leaders might surprise you. Chattanooga, Tennessee Mayor Andy Berke acknowledges that his city isn’t one you’d automatically assume is a leader in broadband connectivity. “Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve,” Berke said. “The Gig changed that.” Previously best known for the song about its railroad, Chattanooga is becoming more known for its early creation and consumer adoption of a gigabit fiber optic network. The actual creator of that network isn’t who you might think: it’s the city’s publicly-owned electrical utility, EPB. But why would a utility build a fiber network? The answer is simple: EPB uses the fiber for more than just Internet subscribers. The fiber network forms the backbone of EPB’s Smarter Grid, a series of networked sensors tied into the power grid that can automatically detect power interruptions, pinpoint the faulty equipment, and automatically reroute power to non-affected equipment nearly instantly. If Chattanooga were the only community interested in a municipal utility-based Internet provider, this information would be nothing more than an interesting bit of trivia. But other communities large and small, from Boston to Santa Monica, are very interested in what EPB and Chattanooga have done. EPB has been vocal in advocating the advantages of the Smarter Grid to other communities, advising them in creation of their own fiber-supported electrical grids. Chattanooga is a model for and member of Next Century Cities, a group of more than 30 communities dedicated to improving the availability of gigabit Internet. Increasing the availability of high-speed Internet access does more than just let residents download games faster or stream movies smoother. It’s a useful tool for attracting new businesses, as Chattanooga has shown. Volkswagen, Amazon, and many smaller tech startups now have a presence in the city, bringing jobs and stimulating the economy. Naturally, other members of Next Century Cities wish to replicate this success. But some feel government should stay out of the Internet business, and it’s true that some such government efforts have failed. Groton, Connecticut, owned phone and Internet provider Thames Valley Communications; budget problems forced the city to sell TVC for a $34.5 million loss. St. Cloud, Florida was one of the first cities in the nation to offer free citywide Wi-Fi access, which it had to suspend for budgetary reasons. And other critics point to foreign governments shutting down Internet access in the face of protests, and fear the potential for a similar denial of access in our own country. As a result of these concerns, some communities face legal challenges to providing high-speed Internet to their residents. In Tennessee, for example, only cities that own their electric utility may provide Internet access. But as the members of New Century Cities indicate, there is significant interest all across the country in municipally-provided high-speed Internet. Would you support your community creating a publicly-owned high-speed network? [zipfinder]
Photo: Next Century Cities
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