Why do you have only a few choices for internet service?

Robin Layton

May 30, 2024 — 6 min read

Service cost, terrain and more play into which ISP is available for your home.

Person installing router at home office.

If you’ve ever asked yourself why do I only have one internet provider to pick from, Allconnect can answer that.

You have certain ISPs to choose from at your address because they are limited in availability, have exclusive provider contracts, have high expansion costs, or have large monopolies.

Limited availability 

Many ISPs have limited availability. The FCC’s broadband map shows areas with a wide variety of ISP choices marked as darker and areas with lower ISP choices marked as lighter. For instance, the San Francisco area’s 10th Street and Market Street block has over 12 ISPs. Meanwhile, a part of rural Nevada (Lincoln County) has three ISPs, all of which are satellite internet options.    

Limited availability can be caused by several factors. Regional logistics can make expanding networks difficult. Fiber networks can also be difficult to run through mountainous regions or other difficult terrain, and fiber optic lines often have to be buried underground.  

Rural areas can also mean it is less cost-effective for ISPs to connect to those areas since there are fewer people. A few extra customers are often not enough to justify these providers’ spending the cost and labor to expand into low-population areas, which is often referred to as the digital divide

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the large ISPs that provide DSL networks overwhelmingly do not support broadband speeds in rural areas. It states, “The big telecom companies have largely abandoned rural America.”          

Exclusive provider contracts 

The Verge covered how exclusive provider contracts can hurt people living in apartment complexes. For many Americans in apartment complexes, they literally only have one choice of internet provider and they often can’t do anything to switch that provider. Revenue-sharing agreements between broadband providers and landlords often mean people in apartments can only sign up for one broadband service.  

In 2008, the FCC banned landlords from entering into these exclusive service agreements with telecom companies, but the companies have exploited loopholes to keep these agreements active.        

The cost to connect rural homes is steep 

The cost to an ISP for connecting a residence or business to its system can be high. Many telecom companies do not want to expand into rural areas with low population density because of those costs. In addition to terrain difficulties, many do not or cannot take on the cost of serving a smaller segment of the population.

Wired covered the story of Jared Mauch, a man who built his own ISP after he couldn’t find sufficient internet service for his rural home in Michigan. He couldn’t get fiber-to-the-home internet from the large broadband services, so he made his own, providing himself with fiber internet and eventually 70 other homes. He’d like to expand this to 600. Fiber internet can provide 1 Gbps of data, which is 250 times the speed of the 4 Mbps download bandwidth that the FCC defines as broadband, according to Ars Technica

The problem is this plan doesn’t come cheap. Mauch is using $2.6 million in government funds, and it will cost over $30,000 each for these homes to get service. Meanwhile, a financial analyst estimated in TechCrunch that Google would spend $84 million to build a fiber network that covered 149,000 homes in Kansas City. A nationwide build-out would cost $11 billion.        

At least 83.3 million Americans can only access broadband through a single provider.

Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Large cable monopolies 

ISPs have long been criticized as being monopolies. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in their 2020 report, Comcast and Charter have an “absolute monopoly” over at least 47 million people. For 33 million residents, the only other choice in their area is a slower and less reliable DSL option. Worse, as reported in 2020, at least 83.3 million Americans could only get broadband through one provider.  

When a company has almost total control over one area, it also has less incentive to offer better prices and faster speeds. The internet provider may not invest in more updated technology, since customers do not have a choice to go elsewhere.

Sometimes the reasons are multiple as to why you cannot get the service you need: Consider the case of a resident of Raleigh, N.C., Rob Putnam, who diligently researched his new home’s ISP availability and discovered he would be serviceable by Spectrum and AT&T.

However, when he moved into his home, he discovered that his side of the street was an AT&T zone, which meant Spectrum could not serve his home even if it wanted to. Mr. Putnam’s only choice was AT&T, and they refused to connect him because his neighborhood was considered low-density. The combination of the AT&T monopoly on the land, plus the cost of expanding to a less-populated neighborhood caused these issues. 

Improve your internet experience

Tips for optimizing your existing internet service for better performance include:

  • Router care: Restart or update it if new releases are available. Consider replacing or upgrading it if it’s too old to support your current internet speed plan.
  • Router placement: Walls or appliances within your home can often block your Wi-Fi signal. Make sure your router is in an open area and not on the floor. 
  • Monitor usage: A device could be draining your internet data and speed and you aren’t even using it or realizing it’s on.
  • Ethernet cables: Try hooking up your computers and other devices via an Ethernet cable – that will indicate where the issue is – your Wi-Fi or a problem with the connection itself, which requires help from your ISP.

Explore alternative internet solutions

If cable or fiber connections are unavailable at your address or you are unsatisfied with a provider, you have other internet options, including fixed wireless, satellite or mobile hotspots.

Using your phone as a hotspot to power your laptop or other devices can work, but you must be mindful of data caps with your phone provider. Some companies offer unlimited data with hotspots available for an extra charge. 

You’ll also need to be in the right area to pick up your provider’s tower signal. Another pitfall is that you can’t game on a hotspot or do other intensive work online. 

Fixed wireless providers like T-Mobile or Verizon rely on your proximity to a tower to provide you with 5G Home Internet plans, reaching up to 245 Mbps for T-Mobile and up to 1,000 Mbps with Verizon. 5G is also cheaper than cable or fiber, with starting prices of $30 to $40/mo. 

Satellite providers like Hughesnet can reach nearly 99.9% of the U.S. Speeds are up to 100 Mbps, which can accommodate most simultaneous activities in a small household. 

How to advocate for better internet options

If your community only has access to internet under the federal speed standards of 100/20 Mbp, consider becoming an advocate to improve internet quality and choice in your area. 

Find a leader or form a group of internet advocates. The next step is to figure out what the community needs, what resources are available and study what other similar communities are doing. You’ll be ready to reach out to local and state government officials after that. 

More internet accessibility in the future 

Not all hope is lost for ISP choice in the future, however. Rulings and new technology are opening internet provider options all across the country.

One example is a recent FCC ruling to ban broadband providers from entering into revenue-sharing agreements with landlords who run multi-family units. “The FCC claims the new rules will prohibit the practices limiting broadband competition within these buildings, allowing the consumer to choose the broadband provider that’s right for them.”. 

There is also the Internet for All Initiative, which is pushing for all Americans to have access to affordable high-speed internet by 2030. The grant programs provide over $48 billion for infrastructure and other aspects of building high-speed internet, such as skills training. 

The demand for high-speed internet is growing. The Fiber Broadband Association said, “fiber broadband now passes over 60.5 million homes in the U.S.”

As reported by PewTrusts.org, “To help expand the availability of fiber networks nationwide, ISPs have committed to investing $60 billion over the next five years to build out FTTH (fiber-to-the-home).” 


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Robin Layton

Written by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

Robin Layton is an editor for the broadband marketplace Allconnect. She built her internet industry expertise writing and editing for four years on the site, as well as on Allconnect’s sister site MYMOVE.com. … Read more