Wolverton: I’ve got the South Bay broadband shopping blues

When it comes to your broadband choices in the South Bay, you really don’t have much choice.

As a consumer, your only real choices are between AT&T and Comcast. And if speed is your thing, Comcast is typically the only real game in town.

At least that’s what I found when I went shopping for telecommunications services recently. With my Triple Play deal from AT&T expiring — and the company refusing to offer me a similar price break — I’ve been exploring my other options.

When it comes to broadband service, I was pretty familiar with both AT&T and Comcast, having switched from the latter to the former two years ago. But I wanted to see what other choices I might have, so I went online to the California Broadband Map.

Operated by the California Public Utilities Commission, the Broadband Map is a Web site that lists the broadband providers in particular areas. All you have to do is plug in your street address, and it will show you your options for wired, wireless and satellite Internet service.

My own search turned up more results than I expected. But I was disappointed that among them was not Sonic.net.

Sonic is a small telecommunications company based in Santa Rosa whose broadband service is competitively priced and consistently receives high marks from customers. The company offers service in much of the Bay Area, but doesn’t reach my area of Willow Glen just yet. (A company representative told me they expected to extend service to my area within about four months.)

Unfortunately, none of the options the Broadband Map did list were reasonable alternatives to Comcast or AT&T. They were either too pricey, too slow or offered too little bandwidth — or some combination of those.

The Map listed three “fixed” broadband alternatives to the Big Two: Etheric Networks, MegaPath and Surfnet Communications. However, the Map was wrong — Surfnet doesn’t offer service anywhere near my area of San Jose.

Etheric does, but it’s unclear whether I could actually get it at my house. The company offers Internet access over what’s known as a fixed wireless system, meaning that your Internet signals are transmitted and received by an antenna that’s permanently attached to your house. Because it’s a wireless technology, you might not be able to get it at your house if surrounding buildings block the signal from traveling to the nearest tower.

Even if I could get Etheric at my house, I wasn’t terribly interested in doing so. The company charges $99 a month for 10 megabit per second (Mbps) Internet service. If you want to bump that up to 20 Mbps, you’d pay $139 a month.

By contrast, Comcast’s everyday price for stand-alone 50 Mbps service is $67 a month. Similarly AT&T’s regular price for its stand-alone 18 Mbps service is $61 per month. And both companies offer their services for much less on promotional offers or as part of bundles.

Like Etheric, MegaPath, which offers service over cable and telephone wires, was too pricey compared to the Big Two. The company charges $125 a month for 16 Mbps service and $175 a month for 50 Mbps.

And those prices for Etheric and MegaPath don’t include installation fees. Depending on which level of Etheric’s service you sign up for, you could be on the hook for $300 to $400 to install its antenna. MegaPath, which offers service over telephone and cable lines, charges around $250 to install its service, although in some cases they offer to waive that fee.

Now, to be sure, both companies tout advantages over Comcast and AT&T. Etheric’s wireless service is available in areas that may not be well served — or served at all — by the Big Two. Unlike those companies, Etheric promises consumers a minimum speed that they will receive — even during peak hours. Etheric’s also offers symmetrical service, meaning that your upload speed is as fast as your download speed, an important consideration if you are uploading lots of movies or pictures to the Net. And both companies guarantee that their service will be up and running more than 99 percent of the time, something the Big Two don’t promise.

Despite those advantages, the prices for their services were just too rich for my blood.

So, I decided to look at other options. The Broadband Map lists four satellite Internet providers in my area: HughesNet; ViaSat, which operates the Exede service, Skycasters and StarBand. But again, the those were choices in name only; they weren’t real alternatives.

Skycasters and StarBand were non-starters as far as options go. The cheapest plan from Skycasters with anything that could be called “broadband” speeds — in this case 5 Mbps — costs $149 a month. And you are limited to just 2 gigabytes (GB) of data usage each month, an amount I likely go through on a daily basis.

StarBand does offer a $60 a month plan, but for pitifully slow 512 kilobits per second service. To get even 1.5 Mbps service, you’d have to pay $120 a month.

While Exede and HughesNet offered much faster speeds at more reasonable prices, they too weren’t really competitive with AT&T or Comcast.

Exede, for example, offers 12 Mbps service for just $50 a month. But that plan limits bandwidth usage to between 10 and 20 GB per month. For a plan with the same speeds but bandwidth limits of between 25 and 50 GB a month, you’d have to pay $130 monthly.

To put that in perspective, you’ll consume about 3 GB of bandwidth by watching just one hour of a high definition movie on Netflix. And in contrast to the satellite guys, neither Comcast nor AT&T are enforcing any kind of bandwidth limits right now.

HughesNet’s service had the same shortcoming. The company offers a $50 a month plan with 10 Mbps download speeds. But you only get 20 GB of data usage out of that. To get a more generous 40 GB of data usage a month — and download speeds of 15 Mbps — you’d have to pay $120 a month.

The other option that you have is to get service from one of the Big Four wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. Speeds on their new LTE data networks are in some cases approaching what you can get on a landline. I regularly see speeds on my iPhone when it’s connected to AT&T’s wireless network that equal or exceed what I get from AT&T’s U-verse service at my house.

But the wireless services have much the same problem as satellite services: The amount of bandwidth they typically offer is seriously limited.

So you can get Internet access from T-Mobile for as little as $20 a month. But you’ll only get 1 GB of usage. To get 11 GB of bandwidth — the most T-Mobile offers — you have to pay $70 a month. For $80 a month, you’ll get 10 GB of data at AT&T, 12 GB at Sprint and 14 GB at Verizon.

You can get more than that — but it will cost you. AT&T charges $205 a month for 30 GB of data — or about 10 hours of HD video from Netflix. You can get as much as 100 GB a month in bandwidth from Verizon, but you’ll have to pay a whopping $710 monthly for it.

So after all that searching, I was back to choosing between the Big Two broadband providers in my area. Having a lot of choices doesn’t do you any good if none of them if none of them is a realistic alternative.

Photo by Troy Wolverton.


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  • You’re limited to two choices because you want Netflix streaming. Is it really that important to you? Assuming it is – I personally find their content library less than compelling except for their DVD selection – it seems like your best choice is to switch back to Comcast. You’ll most likely get a nicer offer from AT&T when you tell them to turn off your service, of course.

    I had Sonic in Livermore, and didn’t find it to perform any better than SBC, and it was a lot more expensive. But that was a long time ago…

  • Tom N.
    • O’Brien’s story in Venture Beat is factually challenged.

  • Patrick W.

    The foundation for everything we do in our lives today today is the internet. John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO): youtu.be/fpbOEoRrHyU. Watch, laugh & understand the issue, then comment – http://www.fcc.gov/comments.

  • There used to be some really super options for broadband. However, starting around 2006, the options went away! Megapath may sound good on the surface, but the service is questionable. AT&T – is really stuck in the mud as well. I’m stuck with Charter Cable here where I live. Was going to move to AT&T Bundle, but AT&T can sell, however they cannot service what they sell and their idea of support, if you modem dies, is to ship you a replacement….not ideal if you happen to be a business customer.

  • It’s pretty much the same story in Baton Rouge and in every other place where the telco has an all copper wired based network. Cable wins the speed race every time unless the telco (like Verizon’s FiOS) or an independent company (typically a local utility) has built an all-fiber network.

    AT&T’s Uverse Broadband
    3 Mbps down (yes 3, not 30 Mbps) $29.95/month
    6 Mbps down (yes 6, not 60) $34.95/month
    18 Mbps $44.95/month
    45 Mbps $64.95/month
    – 12-month deals
    – Include access to AT&T’s nationwide Wi-Fi Hotspot Network
    – Installation and activation are free.
    – The subscriber can cancel in the first thirty days.
    – AT&T gives new broadband subscribers a $50 rewards card.
    See: http://www.att.com/shop/internet/u-verse-internet.html#fbid=mH87il48f9E

    Cox, AT&T’s competitor in Baton Rouge, has recently doubled its 50 Mbps service to 100 Mbps at no additional charge to the customers. AT&T’s fastest broadband service is 45 Mbps down.

    Cox broadband only:
    5 Mbps down $34.99/month
    50 Mbps down $49.99/month
    100 Mbps down $59.99/month
    150 Mbps down $79.99/month
    – The term is for one year
    – Over 250,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots are included
    – Cox Security Suite Plus is included
    See: https://store.cox.com/residential-store/shop.cox?conversationId=47245

  • coronafl

    What is the status of Google’s broadband plans, the last I heard they were deciding which cities to install their fiber network. Also, has Verizon Fios stopped expanding. Comcast seems to be able to dictate its price and service because they are basically the only game in town (for high speed internet).

    • Richard Bennett

      Contrary to popular opinion, Verizon hasn’t completed their FiOS install, they’re working off a plan that has three more years to go. They’re not going to install outside their current footprint, however. There are a few spots of FiOS in California such as a little spot in Santa Monica that used to be GTE territory, but you’re not going to see it in the South Bay. I used to develop FiOS routers at Actiontec in Sunnyvale, and I had to fly to Reston, VA to test them in a real network. AT&T has a plan to install FTTH in 100 cities and towns, but it’s on hold now that President Obama has dropped a sledge hammer on the broadband industry. In virtually every country with ultra-high-speed fiber networks, the fastest networks are deregulated, but Obama wants to go in a different direction.