By James K. Willcox/Consumer Reports

Millions of Americans struggle to pay for fast internet service, or find that it’s not available where they live, a new Consumer Reports survey shows. The nationally representative survey of 2,565 adults, conducted in June of this year, adds urgency to debates over broadband infrastructure and competition, according to consumer advocates.

Approximately three out of four Americans say they have broadband service in their households. But one in 20 say they rely on slow DSL connections or dial-up service, 15 percent use their cellphone plans to access the internet, and 3 percent of Americans say they have no access to the internet in their homes.

Nearly a third of those who lack broadband say it’s because it costs too much, and about a  quarter of those with broadband service say they struggle to pay for it.

“This survey reinforces what we already suspected: that getting online for millions of Americans is too costly, and in many cases the service is inadequate,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports. “As the pandemic continues, being able to connect to high-speed internet makes all the difference in the world, whether you are applying to a job or video chatting with family and friends.”

The lack of fast, reliable internet connections can make it harder for adults working remotely and for students who attend school online.

However, there is something consumers can do about high prices. The survey shows that many people have successfully negotiated with their broadband providers. About one-third of internet customers tried to get a better deal in the past 12 months. Nearly half of those who negotiated for better features, such as faster speed, were successful, while 42 percent who bargained for a better price were able to get one.

Forty-three percent of Americans who have broadband service in their home are using it more now than they were before the pandemic hit, according to the survey, and 16 percent decided to upgrade their plans to meet their growing needs.

Help us learn more

To gather more information on internet pricing and access, Consumer Reports is working with a coalition of partner organizations – including El Paso Matters – to collect and analyze thousands of internet bills from across the United States. Individuals can participate in the Broadband Together project by taking an internet speed test, sharing a bill and answering a few questions about your broadband service. In partnership with several other media organizations, Consumer Reports plans to publish the initial results this fall.

Struggling to pay monthly bills

The difficulty in paying for fast internet service is felt disproportionately among communities of color. Thirty-two percent of Black and 33 percent of Hispanic Americans who have broadband at home say they have some level of difficulty paying their monthly bill. That’s true for 21 percent of white Americans.

According to the survey, the median monthly broadband bill, including taxes and fees, is about $70. In areas where there’s competition, prices are lower. The median monthly price in a market with just one provider is $75, but that figure drops to $68 when consumers have a choice of three providers.

Lack of local infrastructure is also a barrier for some Americans, especially those living in rural areas. Of those who don’t have broadband internet service, a quarter say it’s because it is not available where they live.

The survey shows that more African-American households (21 percent) rely on smartphones for at-home internet access than white (14 percent) or Hispanic (15 percent) households.

Support for community-based broadband

The CR survey also gathered information on municipal broadband services, in which a town or city offers its own internet plans to residents, often in partnership with a private company. These city-run services often provide fast connections to people’s homes in neighborhoods where none are available from other internet service providers. They may also introduce competition—and often lower prices—in markets that lack it.

Many of these municipal broadband services are popular with their customers. EPB, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, has periodically showed up at the top of CR’s telecom ratings for internet providers.

About two-dozen states have curtailed or banned community-based internet services, to prevent local governments from competing with private enterprises. Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups have long opposed such restrictions. And, most Americans share that view. Three out of four Americans feel that municipal, or community, broadband services should be allowed to help ensure that all Americans to have equal access to the internet. According to the survey, the level of support varies with political affiliation, but is shared by majorities of Democrats (85 percent), independents (74 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).