December 6, 2010 - 1:13 pm
Joel Gurin | Chief, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau

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If you're like many Americans, you may be wondering whether you should keep the Internet service you have in your home. If you have more than one broadband provider in your area, you may be getting a barrage of advertising encouraging you to switch from your current provider to another one. Should you switch – and if so, why?

At the FCC, we've done a representative national survey to find out how satisfied consumers are with their Internet service and what goes into the decision to switch or stick with an ISP. We're releasing the results of that survey today. It shows that Americans are largely pleased with their Internet service, but have some cause for dissatisfaction – and face obstacles that make it hard for them to switch ISPs.

Our survey found that 38 percent of Internet users have changed service providers in the last three years, more than half of them for a reason other than changing residences. The majority of Internet users seem to be satisfied with their service; most people who haven't switched say they haven't even considered it seriously. Still, 38 percent is a significant number, and one that deserves further exploration.

What makes people want to change providers? Two things: Price and performance. Nearly a quarter of home Internet users are dissatisfied with the price they pay for service, and 47 percent of those who switched ISPs said price was a major reason. Even more – 49 percent – said that a major reason they switched was to get a faster or higher performance Internet connection.

Moreover, the survey showed that a sizeable number of people would consider switching ISPs if it was easier to do. They're deterred not only by the hassle, but by financial considerations – the need to put down a new deposit, pay a set-up or installation fee, or pay an early termination fee. Early termination fees are currently less common for ISPs than for cell-phone service, but they're still a factor.

This survey, together with earlier data we've reported, underscores how much consumers need clear information to help them make smart choices about Internet service. Speed is a major factor that leads people to switch ISPs – but how many of us really understand what speed we're getting? We previously reported that 80 percent of Americans don't know their broadband speed, and today's survey found that most say their monthly bills aren't clear about speed either. If ISPs are going to compete on speed – which will be good for consumers and good for the country's broadband infrastructure – then consumers need better information on what speed they need and what speeds they're getting.

The same is true of price and fees. We've found previously that many cell-phone customers don't know the early termination fees that they're subject to. As some ISPs start instituting these fees as well, they need to ensure that consumers are fully informed and can factor these fees into their decisions.

Competition among ISPs, like competition in other markets, is good for consumers and good for service providers. And clear information will help consumers make the smart choices that allow competition to work.

We're interested in your own experience: Have you switched ISPs, or thought about doing so? Post a comment to let us know your views.

(This is cross-posted on Blogband. Please leave your comments on switching ISPs there.)