Why finding a better ISP is harder than it should be

Thanks to monopolies, the U.S. has fewer ISP options than you'd think. But you might still have some alternatives.

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Sandra isn't satisfied with her ISP. "For 4+ years I have gotten a mixture of good, slow & no service."

The United States doesn't have the world's worst Internet access by a long shot. But the country that invented the Internet has fallen well behind other wealthy democracies in online access. According to one report, a resident of Washington D.C. will get only 26.42Mbps of download speed for $50 a month. In London, that same price brings 78.70Mbps. In Hong Kong, 302.61.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

So what's our problem? According to Susan P. Crawford, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, it's unregulated monopolies. DSL has become too slow for modern uses (such as streaming video). In most neighborhoods, the only other option is your local cable provider, who has to compete with no one. "The monopoly power of local cable incumbents over wired access is striking. The big cable players, Time Warner Cable and Comcast, never enter each other's territories," she told the New York Times in a 2013 interview.

ITU offers an interactive chart that graphically shows how the US fell behind in penetration. In 1999, we pretty much led the world in what little broadband there was. But South Korea leaped ahead of us the next year. By 2013 (the last year on the graph), France, Germany, Canada and several others had passed us by. We continued to gain subscriptions, but other countries gained faster.

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So what can you do about it (aside from moving overseas or complaining to Congress)? You can check to see whether you actually do have multiple options. Go to Broadbandnow and enter your zip code. You'll find the ISPs serving your area, with their cheapest and slowest options displayed, plus other information available with a few clicks.

But check the fine print, even on Broadbandnow. The displayed price may be good only for a limited time.

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