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Relief for high cable bills

| Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Who doesn't think their Internet and cable bills are too high? For years, I've been tracking the stories asking why we seem to be perennial sufferers of a certain chronic syndrome: Bills too high, Internet speed too slow.

There are quite a few studies that show the United States has the slowest Internet speeds in the developed world — and the highest bills. The divergence is amazing. Compared to France, the United Kingdom and South Korea, we have speeds four times as slow, and we pay three or four times as much.

Is this comparison fair? One thing to remember — the United States is a very big country with a lot of ground to cover. We live spread out, and I can see how that might drive up costs. (That's not an excuse in big cities, though.)

This topic springs to mind from two news items, one you might have heard about — and one you might not have. The big news: Comcast is taking over Time Warner Cable, establishing by far the country's largest cable and Internet provider. The company is amassing an army of lobbyists in D.C. to get the deal past federal regulators.

The smaller news: recent legislative moves on the state level. Legislators in Utah and Kansas have put forward bills that would make it difficult for cities to run their own broadband networks. These prohibitions are much favored by big cable operators; there are already more than a dozen states that have such restrictions.

What unites these two stories is this: The real problem with the quality of our Internet services is that too many cities have already given Internet providers monopoly access — and make it extremely difficult for competitors to come in and lay cable to compete. Satellite is arguably a better service than cable (it's growing, even as cable use is falling), but satellite providers can't provide bundled Internet. And the one Internet service on the ground that can compete with cable is generally a variant of DSL — but that has inferior speeds to cable.

The result is what generally happens when private companies have a monopoly and consumers have nowhere else to go: high prices and poor customer service. That's why so many cable customers give their local cable companies low marks.

When cities establish their own municipal Internet networks, prices from the commercial outfits come down — as they would when faced with any other competition. The higher speeds and cheaper prices attract business. One Tennessee businessman found service “eight or 10 times cheaper” in Chattanooga since that city began a strong municipal Internet network.

One thing we can do now, however, is figure out ways to keep our cable and Internet bills as low as possible.

If you get your cable and Internet through a sole local provider, call and threaten to switch to a satellite provider. If there are two Internet providers in your hometown, call your provider and threaten to switch. Get their best deal. Then, call the other provider and tell them to better it. Some consumers have found that alone can bring some relief.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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