Wolverton: Want better broadband choices? Move to France

You probably knew your choices for pay TV and broadband here in the Bay Area weren’t good. But you may not realize how bad they actually are relatively to what people elsewhere can get.

That point became crystal clear for me when I read a recent column by my former colleague Chris O’Brien. Chris moved to France a few months ago and like me recently went shopping for telecommunications services. The result: Chris will be spending about a third less than I will be paying even under my promotional deal and getting a whole lot more for his money.

As Chris details in a piece for VentureBeat, he will be paying a basic rate of about $63 a month. For that, he will get:

  • Pay TV with 250 cable channels
  • Home phone service with unlimited international calling
  • Internet service with 100 megabit per second (Mbps) download speeds
  • Mobile phone service with unlimited calling and 3 gigabytes (GB) of monthly bandwidth.

By contrast, as I detailed in my column today, I just put together a bundle that will cost me around $100 a month for the first year and then about $150 a month in my second year, not including one-time costs or taxes. For that, I’ll be getting the following. I’ve highlighted in red where my deal comes up short:

  • Pay TV with about 240 channels
  • Home phone services with unlimited domestic calling
  • Internet service with 50 Mbps download speeds

You’ll notice that unlike Chris, my bundle also doesn’t include mobile phone service. The Merc actually pays for my phone service, but my wife and I pay out of pocket for her phone service. That comes to about $82 a month. So all told, for a comparable bundle of services, we will be paying about $182 a month — or about three times more than what Chris’s paying — for objectively inferior service. And when our prices go up next year, we’ll be paying $230 a month, or nearly four times as much as Chris is paying.

That huge difference isn’t unusual, unfortunately. Groups such as the New America Foundation have consistently found that we Americans pay more but get less for our telecommunications services compared with consumers in other developed countries.

As Chris notes in his column, the key problem we face is a lack of competition. While he could choose from some five different telecommunications packages, most of us are lucky if we have two options, and, when it comes to high-speed broadband, most of us don’t even have that.

So read Chris column and weep. Or, better yet, call the FCC and your Congressional representatives and demand more choices. Because we sure could use some.

File photo by Matt Rourke/AP Photo.


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  • Richard Bennett

    Chris O’Brien’s column is misleading. Most of France is stuck with DSL at speeds you would sneer at; cable modem service is only available to 22% of the country. His TV package is also not comparable, it’s mostly free-to-air and subsidized local programming funded by the $15/month TV tax. Free Mobile offers low prices, but ARCEP (the French FCC) rates its service quality at the bottom of the pile and it’s a 3G service roughly comparable to Cricket.

    If you want great speeds at low prices move to Brentwood in the East Bay: 1000 Mbps + phone for $40/month. The miracle of cherry picking rate plans.

    • jmc

      Funny, here in SF I was paying $35 back for 1.5MBS DSL back in 1997 and now almost twenty years later I’m paying almost $50 for 3.5MBS DSL. Recently they finally rolled out ASDL2 support (in some areas) which means I might finally get the sort of speeds that became common in most parts of metropolitan Europe almost a decade ago.

      Meanwhile in the deepest Bretagne countryside in western France family members have been getting packages as described in the article for most of the last decade. I remember using a 30MBS ASDLS2 line at a farm house in a very rural area back in 2005. For the download speeds I get in deepest rural France for 30 euro a month I’d have to pay $120 for around here. If I can find it delivered reliably.

      Knowing well the politics of both countries I know who to thank for the French situation – EU telecom dereg. And who to blame for the local situation – the Clinton Era FCC and the state PUC With the main culprit being the state PUC and the cities. Abolish the PUC and Federalize regulatory authority and we might see some improvement. Maybe.

      • Richard Bennett

        You were doing well until you got to your blaming part. France has some of the slowest broadband in the EU thanks to the way they’ve transposed the EU’s open access mandate into national law. They didn’t even permit VDSL until a year ago. The parts of France that have high speeds have cable and/or fiber options, but these are scarce in France because it once allowed Orange (nee France Telecom) to own cable systems as well as DSL; that doesn’t encourage cable modem. Check the speed data from Akamai if you think this is wrong.

        The trouble with Frisco is the city planning commission; AT&T has tried repeatedly to get approval for FTTC and been denied, as have Paxio and Sonic, and the backlog of cell tower applications is larger in Frisco than in comparable towns (SF only has 800K residents and 49 sq. miles, it’s not a major metro).

        If you want to see what’s possible in the Bay Area look at the East Bay communities that have welcomed Sonic, Paxio, and allowed AT&T to upgrade. Look to Frisco if you want to see NIMBYism and crony politics in action.

        Comcast offers 150 Mbps in Denver and CenturyLink will have the whole city wired for gigabit before Frisco gets off the dime.

        • jmc

          ..and you were doing well until you used the term “Frisco”. Seriously? “Frisco”? Its SF, San Fran, or the City.

          You sound like a telecom establishment shill. As someone who has been tech for more than 30 years. And using WAN’s since the days of 300 baud acoustic couplers in the late 70’s all I know is that for a major met area SF (and large chunks of the Valley) have not been competitive speed wise for a decade or more.

          I’m comparing them form personal experience with London (Zone 1 and 2), Paris (75 and the 9x’s), Milan (inner ring). And for a long time most of the Bay Area has not even competitive with even rural areas in France, UK , Ireland and large chunks of northern Italy. I’ll admit one family member currently has flaky internet speeds deep in the rural Po Valley. But thats because he lives on the edge of two metro catchment areas. A few km up the road is ADLS2 full speed all the way.

          You are correct in saying that the city government is mainly responsible for the SF fiasco. But its the same in pretty much all major US metro areas. Its quite an achievement that the processes of getting ultra high speed internet was far more efficient (and transparent) in Milan home of Berlusconi and Tangentopoli than in any major Cal metro. I used my first 100MBS fiber in Milan in 2003. It was 40 euro a month, no cap. And the MAN had so much spare capacity that you needed 1000BaseT local to keep up.

          • Richard Bennett

            Let’s try to avoid name-calling. I’m one of the guys who created Ethernet over twisted pair and Wi-Fi, and I’ve never worked for a phone company, although I have worked for companies who sold products to them, like Cisco, 3Com, Tandem, and HP.

            There are two ways to analyze broadband networks around the world: we can go with personal anecdotes such as those you’re offering, or we can look at the databases that firms like Akamai build and the pricing and deployment data collected by governments and shared with OECD and similar organizations. I prefer the latter approach, and by those standards the US is doing better than France, Germany, Italy, and the other large European nations with similar population spread than we have any right to do. We have more access to 100 Mbps than Europe does because we have more extensive DOCSIS 3 cable modem access – 82% vs. 52% – and more extensive fiber deployment, 25% vs. 15%. Europe is primarily a DSL continent, and the US and Canada are all about cable modem. Fiber is spreading on both places, but it’s spreading faster in the US. There is actual data to back up these claims.

            I had 50 Mbps from Comcast in 2008 in Livermore, not exactly a bustling metropolis, and could have had 100 Mbps if I had wanted it. By the time I left California this year, I had 100 Mbps service for the same price I paid for 25 Mbps in 2007. In reality, 100 Mbps doesn’t make web pages load noticeably faster than 25 or 50 Mbps service does; once you have 10 Mbps service, the load time depends more on the server than on the network.

            So a lot of this whining about arbitrarily high speeds is a reflection of how poorly the average consumer understands the Internet.

  • Richard Bennett

    Incidentally, the competition argument is a non-starter because cable providers like Numericable are not required to make their lines available to other ISPs; open access in France (as in other nations) only applies to DSL.

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