Internet abstract

Dawson On Measuring Speeds

Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting shared an excellent blog post this morning titled The Fantasy of Measuring Speeds. He gives an excellent overview of why two people who live in the same city might experience different speeds despite subscribing to the same plan offered by an internet service provider.

Dawson argues that lots of important information is thrown away when we pretend that a single measure of speed can explain the quality of a service a provider offers. Internet services don’t even offer individual customers a fixed speed:

What’s the right speed on a broadband network? The speed that can be obtained at 4:00 in the morning when the network is empty or the speed at 8:30 in the evening when the network is bogged down with the heaviest neighborhood usage?

If you’ve never done it, I suggest you run multiple speed tests, back-to-back. I am on a Charter cable network and I ran speed tests for any hour recently and I saw reported speed varying by as much as 50%. What speed is my broadband connection?…The FCC is about to embark on a grand new scheme to force ISPs to better define and report broadband speeds. It’s bound to fail. If I can’t figure out the speed on my cable modem connection, then the FCC is on a fool’s mission.

The trouble with the FCC’s approach is that the agency wants an ISP to report actual speed by clusters of homes – today it’s by Census block and soon it will be polygons. But this is a waste of everybody’s time when nobody can even define the speed for an individual home.

I strongly recommend the full post.

While I largely agree with Dawson, I take a more optimistic stance. Transitioning from collecting data at the census-block level to collecting data at the level of polygons may bring incremental improvements. I’d like to see that transition, even if it won’t solve underlying issues with the FCC’s approach.

Satellite Dish

Starlink’s Terminal Costs

Starlink beta testers can purchase a user terminal and a router for about $500. Starlink probably sells these terminals at a significant loss. In a tweet shared earlier this month, Elon Musk wrote:

Lowering Starlink terminal cost, which may sound rather pedestrian, is actually our most difficult technical challenge.

In a recent earnings call, Pradman Kaul, CEO and President of Hughes Network Systems, gave some perspective on the cost of Starlink’s terminal in comparison to conventional terminals for satellite internet:

The big advantage we would have over Starlink is the economics…Our antenna in Jupiter [Hughes’ terminal], it costs $40 to $50. I think most people would agree that, today, the phased array antenna [what Starlink uses] costs are around $1,400, $1,500. So the economics just going to not be a big advantage for them. In fact, it’s going to make our offerings much more attractive.

Start Small

With recurring expenses, I often advise people to start small and upgrade later if necessary. The rationale behind the advice is easy to illustrate with internet service.

Home internet is often priced based on the max speeds the service provider will deliver. Usually, max speeds are described as some number of megabits per second (Mbps). A cable company’s price structure might look something like this:

  • 40 Mbps – $30 per month
  • 150 Mbps – $45 per month
  • 300 Mbps – $60 per month
  • 600 Mbps – $75 per month
  • 1,000 Mbps – $100 per month

The problem

Most people want internet that feels fast, but not many people have a clear sense of how many Mbps it takes for a connection to feel fast. People who are uncertain often end up choosing a speed that falls in the middle of the options available. If that speed is sufficient, they generally stick with it. If the speed turns out to be too slow, they upgrade. With this approach, people won’t get clear feedback if they purchase faster speeds than necessary. People often spend years paying extra for high speeds they don’t benefit from.

In my opinion, over-purchasing happens more often than necessary because service providers encourage it. For example, one of the Xfinity internet options available to me right now involves a max speed of 60 Mbps. Xfinity explains that the speed is “good for up to 5 devices at the same time.” This is silly. 60Mbps might only support 5 devices if they’re all streaming ultra-HD video at the same time. For more realistic situations, a 60 Mbps connection can support far more than 5 devices. Xfinity knows this, but Xfinity has an incentive to encourage customers to purchase more expensive service than necessary.

I expect Xfinity’s cost structure is effective for the company since it allows them to engage in a weak form of price discrimination. In most markets, different people are willing to pay different amounts for the same product or service. If business owners can find a way to charge more money to the people who are willing to pay more, their businesses will be more profitable. Something like this occurs with internet service. People with tight budgets tend to start with cheaper, slower options. People with more money tend to purchase higher speeds than they need and often overpay for service without recognizing it.

The solution

Overspending is often easy to avoid. When services allow easy upgrading without any extra fees (as is often the case with internet), I advise people to start with the cheapest option that they think might be adequate. If you start with a low-speed tier for internet services, there’s a good chance you’ll find it satisfactory. If not, you can upgrade to the next speed tier.

The same solution works in other industries. Not sure how many gigabytes of data you need on your cell phone plan? Start with a small amount. If you hit your monthly allotment, add more data.

Not sure whether cheap, prepaid service will perform as well as postpaid service? Try prepaid service for a month. If you like it, stick with it. If not, switch over to postpaid service.

Starting small is a good idea in situations where services with recurring bills are easy to upgrade. While companies often penalize people who downgrade services, upgrading services is often easier. Companies are generally happy to have their customers pay more each month. That said, starting small isn’t always a good idea. For example, an internet service provider may offer discounted, introductory rates that customers are ineligible for when upgrading.

Buy Your Own Router And Modem

Earlier this week, I signed up for Comcast’s Xfinity internet at a new apartment. If a subscriber doesn’t bring his or her own modem and router, Xfinity will rent a device for $13 per month. As far as I can tell, the majority of subscribers opt to rent. Renting is a terrible deal.

I purchased a modem and a router in 2017 for a total of about $70. While I don’t mind having a separate modem and router, there are plenty of options for simple devices that combine a router and a modem into a single unit. Amazon’s best-selling combination devices can be seen here. At the time of writing, several high-quality devices are available for between $80 and $130.

A $13 per month rental fee works out to $156 per year. A router can easily be used for 3 years, possibly much longer.

The table below shows the overall cost of renting a $13 per month router/modem for different lengths of time. I assume that rental fees will not increase over time. The assumption is generous. In the last decade, Comcast’s rental costs have risen by about 4X from $3 per month to $13 per month. The table also shows how much a subscriber could save by buying a high-end, $150 router/modem instead of renting.

Years usedRental costSavings by purchasingRental cost vs. purchase cost

If you only use a $150 device for a single year, renting and buying are about equally cost-effective. In the off chance you use your service for less than a year, renting may make financial sense. That said, most Xfinity plans come with a one-year commitment. I doubt many customers subscribe for short enough periods to justify renting. If you keep your service for a few years or more, you can save a ton of money by buying your own modem and router.

Renting a modem/router may appeal to people since it’s simple. If you rent a device from Xfinity, you may not worry about compatibility and performance as much as you would when buying your own modem/router.

If the technical aspects of buying a modem or router concern you, here’s my advice for keeping things simple:

  • Visit Amazon’s page listing its best-selling modem/router combination devices.
  • Limit yourself to devices that are well-reviewed.
  • Find a listing explicitly states that the device is (a) compatible with the service you will use (e.g., Comcast Xfinity) and (b) able to support service at the speed you want.1

Some people will struggle when deciding which device to purchase. A lot of consumers aren’t sure about the speeds they’ll want. They might find a cheap device that is probably good enough but wonder whether they should spend some extra cash to get a device they’re confident is good enough. Remember that even if you spend more than you need to on a router/modem, you’re probably still getting a way better deal than you would with a rented device.