Cable keeps lagging in customer satisfaction, compared to fiber and FWA

It seems cable internet providers are still falling behind in customer satisfaction, especially when it comes to cost.

In this year’s CableTV survey the best major ISPs for overall satisfaction were either fiber or wireless providers, those being Google Fiber, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T. Meanwhile, Xfinity, Spectrum and Cox all hovered at or below 50% approval ratings for price satisfaction.

"Customers know that they shouldn’t be paying more for the same internet plans, and they’re increasingly aware of alternatives outside of the major providers," wrote CableTV's Eric Chiu.

Cable ISPs trending poorly on price satisfaction is becoming a common data point. Parks Associates' latest consumer study also found that fiber and mobile services score the highest for consumer value perceptions of their service, “especially on cost.”

A 2023 CNET report found that fiber plans tend to be more expensive than cable, but “generally” deliver a lower price per megabit than other connection types. For example, even though Google Fiber’s plans start at $70 monthly, Chiu noted that its “high-quality service still makes it more of a deal for customers compared to other ISPs.”

For their part, wireless companies have done an “admirable job of conveying the value" of their wireless internet service,” J.D. Power analyst Carl Lepper said in October. That could explain higher satisfaction among wireless customers, even though they often report higher monthly rates.

Lower cost satisfaction for cable could also have something to do with price increases and equipment fees from providers. In an interview with Fierce Telecom this week, Roger Entner of Recon Analytics called this the effect of “exploding prices,” where cable providers charge a lower amount for an introductory offer and then a year later, pricing surges.

Indeed, CableTV’s top-scoring ISPs have in common “straightforward pricing, high performance and no annual price increases.”

The survey’s "best bang for your buck" winners were Google Fiber, Quantum Fiber, Lumos, T-Mobile's 5G Home Internet and Metronet. Cable providers were absent from the list of five top ISPs for customer support as well.

Among midsize and regional ISPs, the top internet carriers in overall customer satisfaction were Quantum Fiber, Starlink and Metronet. CableTV noted the customer bases for those ISPs are “a fraction of the size” of their major competitors, and all three (along with Google Fiber) were the only providers to break the 80% satisfaction mark in its survey, with “substantially higher overall customer satisfaction scores” than their larger competitors.

Fiber versus FWA

At least for now, fixed wireless and fiber are still contending for the top spots in consumer surveys.

T-Mobile’s 5G Home Internet breaking into a top-five spot on the CableTV survey this year is notable, as its footprint is smaller than that of most cable and fiber ISPs. The carrier’s high scores (77% of customers said they were fully or highly satisfied with the service) indicate that its fixed wireless access (FWA) offering has become a viable alternative to cable.

"When you factor in 5G internet’s marketing pitch, it’s not hard to see why customers are responding positively to 5G fixed wireless access services," wrote Chiu.

However, as $42.5 billion in funding from the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program is set to hit the market, dispute has mounted over whether that money should be allocated to a mix of technologies, like FWA, or to fiber alone.

Proponents of fiber-only investment have said that it is the only “future-proof” infrastructure that will be able to meet evolving bandwidth needs. The NTIA itself has established a clear preference for fiber for the BEAD program and others, like the Capital Projects Fund (CPF).

At the same time, Wireless players have continued to push back against the BEAD program’s preference for fiber. Several states have indicated that fiber infrastructure is likely to exhaust BEAD funds before all unserved and underserved locations are connected. In a letter to the NTIA this month, the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) said that insufficient funding could be addressed by deploying appropriate FWA or other alternative technology solutions.

If you ask Recon Analytics’ Entner, there is a place for both FWA and fiber, depending on where they’re being implemented.

In rural America providers have the choice of laying fiber, which could cost anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a mile. Or, in such sparsely populated areas, they could just provide FWA.

“FWA can blow the speeds away at a fraction of the cost, it really depends,” added Entner. “In urban areas fiber will win, simply because a lot of people are around. In rural America, maybe not. There are customers who will be very well served, and ideally served, with fiber. And there are customers who will be just as well if not better served by FWA.”