November 30, 2023
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The detective-work part of buying a home has traditionally not extended to verifying the availability of basic utilities — but then broadband Internet became one of those basics.

And while high-speed connectivity now rates as a must-have, it has yet to reach will-get status.

In many rural markets, buyers and their agents must puzzle their way through incomplete or incorrect data to see what access awaits at a new house. Sometimes, new homeowners only learn after a closing that their property is bereft of broadband — leaving them to choose between paying tens of thousands of dollars to get wired connectivity extended or limping along with expensive, data-capped satellite Internet.

“The MLS [Multiple Listing Service] does say Internet yes/no,” said Jim Duncan, an associate broker and partner at Nest Realty in Charlottesville. “The MLS is also, you know, human input.”

And, he added, multiple-listing services don’t break out what sort of connectivity might exist at a residence, leaving buyers and brokers to determine if it’s speedy fiber-optic access, somewhat less-swift cable, or an antiquated and slow digital subscriber line (DSL).

Asking the seller seems an obvious remedy but may not work when they aren’t clear on these distinctions, Duncan said: “A lot of these sellers may not know what they have.”

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A survey released in late December by Leichtman Research Group, a Durham, N.H., telecom consultancy, found that 45 percent of broadband subscribers didn’t know their service’s download speeds.

Buyers, meanwhile, can set themselves up for disappointment if they expect their next home to feature about the same broadband access as their last one did, especially if the new residence is not new construction.

“You just assume, maybe wrongly, that you’ll get service,” said Natalie Roy, owner of the Arlington, Va.-based Bicycling Realty Group of KW Metro Center.

She cited one client in Virginia who moved a few years ago from Falls Church to a farm in Middlebrook, outside of Staunton. Broadband didn’t come up during the evaluation of the property.

The result: “The first year or so she was there, she had to go to the library to get service,” Roy said.

The client upgraded, somewhat, to using a Verizon mobile hotspot and then satellite broadband from HughesNet. This common fallback of rural homeowners relies on satellites in geosynchronous orbits some 22,000 miles up that keep them fixed over one point on Earth. That distant perch lets satellite access work almost anywhere in the United States with a view of the southern sky but imposes the trade-offs of notable lag time and strict data limits — at HughesNet, a 50-gigabyte threshold on a $150-a-month plan, after which the service slows to 2001-vintage speeds.

Fortunately for Roy’s Shenandoah Valley client, the connectivity cavalry is finally on the way — she said the local electric co-op is building out fiber-optic service.

Other homeowners are not so lucky.

Christina Deese, an office manager who works remotely, said she was told a few years ago during negotiations for a new house outside the rural town of Adel, Ga., that her cable provider also offered service at this prospective abode. After moving in, she said the provider informed her otherwise and quoted a rate of $37,000 to extend service across the remaining 2,700 feet.

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Deese and her husband opted for satellite and grew to resent it. In June 2020, she cited a $220 monthly bill and complained that “we can’t stream movies or anything on it because otherwise it just eats up my GB for work later on in the month.”

The Deeses then sold the house, taking advantage of pandemic-inflated housing prices to sell to a Florida couple who was advised of the broadband issue but did not work from home.

Moving, alas, did not help. As Deese emailed in November: “We are still in the same if not worse position.”

In this case, a county venture into providing fixed-wireless broadband only reached houses within sight of the transmitter. So the family is once again on satellite broadband, supplemented by one Verizon hotspot for each kid; Deese said the 50-gigabyte monthly quota on each Verizon device suffices until the younger ones want to play “Roblox.”

Two better wireless options — residential broadband from Verizon and T-Mobile, each without data caps — don’t reach the Deese residence. Verizon’s service, available via 4G and, in fewer places, 5G, runs $25 a month with a higher-end Verizon unlimited-data phone plan, $50 without it; T-Mobile’s, also based on either 4G or 5G, costs $50.

So the Deeses are now on the waiting list for Starlink, the low-Earth-orbit satellite broadband service from SpaceX that offers faster speeds than HughesNet for $99 a month and does not impose a data cap. In early January, Starlink’s site estimated that it would offer service there “by early to mid 2022.”

To avoid outcomes like this, the first step is to be skeptical of the broadband map published by the Federal Communications Commission, experts say. It offers a high degree of detail but relies on inexact filings by Internet providers that can lead people astray.

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“They’re riddled with errors,” then-FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the 2018 Atlantic Festival conference in Washington. Rosenworcel, now FCC chair, added at the time: “It’s wrong about my house!”

Checking for service on an Internet provider’s site by plugging in the address should work — except sometimes even that does not, courtesy of glitches in the provider’s systems.

Nest Realty’s Duncan recounted one such problem.

“The Internet service is there, they bought the house,” he said. And then the new homeowners learned the access stopped across the street. “It took the ISP [Internet service provider] many, many months to come out,” Duncan said, without naming the provider.

Eric Martin said he experienced a similar problem after moving into a house in Littleton, Colo. — Comcast provided service across the backyard, but not at his new house.

“I think I found out during home inspection, but figured I could get [that] changed easily because of the urban nature of the location,” he wrote in an email. That left him relying on much slower DSL from CenturyLink, which he said worked — except when multiple devices were online and streaming media became impossible.

Martin, a regional manager for a concrete contractor, said he fixed this issue with some investigating: He found a Comcast executive’s contact information listed on the county government’s site and emailed him.

“He got someone to look into my case,” Martin wrote. “It took some back and forth; but I’m now hooked up.”

To avoid situations like this, Duncan advises buyers show up at the listing with a computer: “If at all possible, get access to their WiFi and be able to run our own speed test.”

House hunters in more urban confines shouldn’t have to worry about getting shut out of broadband. But they can still struggle to get a full picture of which providers can connect a future residence — and see not just download speeds but upload speeds, which can make video-chatting easy or enervating.

As Roy said: “Most of the time, you have to fend for yourself.”

Note that while the FCC broadband map can overstate what’s available in the country, it can also understate city dwellers’ choices by missing fixed-wireless options.

For example, at one address in Alexandria, Va. — a jurisdiction in which Comcast has long maintained a local monopoly on high-speed service — it missed the 5G residential broadband that T-Mobile’s site reported as available. At another in the city, the FCC map omitted Starry, a Boston-based wireless provider.

Many cable providers give customers an extra challenge by treating upload speeds as a technical detail to be asterisked away.

Comcast, the nation’s largest provider, does not list upload speeds on its rate-plan pages, instead filing them away on a network-management disclosure page.

“Upstream is not driving consumption today,” Comcast spokesman Joel Shadle said, citing data showing downloads having 14 times the volume of uploads. “Our website reflects that.”

That’s also the case at Spectrum, the second-largest ISP, which provides broadband in parts of D.C. and some states. That information is listed on a rate-card page.

And at Comcast and Spectrum, the starting upload speeds of five megabits per second may impede working remotely; at Astound Broadband, the 15-megabits-per-second option offered on its slowest plan has a little more capacity.

The infrastructure measure President Biden signed into law in November may help future home shoppers with these problems. It will finance broadband buildouts across the United States and require Internet providers to list the features of their services on a nutrition label-style form, like what the FCC proposed in 2016.

For now, though, buyers and their agents have to do the work, even if other parties make that difficult. As Duncan put it: “Trust and verify and make sure it’s in writing.”

How home buyers can investigate broadband service:

  • Check a potential new home’s address on the FCC broadband map, but don’t take that as the final word.
  • For each provider the FCC map lists, check the address on the provider’s site.
  • When you go to an open house, ask if you can use the WiFi, then run a speed test — Ookla’s Speedtest app is free for Android and iOS — on your phone.
  • Check with the relevant local government, civic association or homeowners association to see what other services connect the neighborhood.
  • See if home wireless broadband from T-Mobile or Verizon covers the address.
  • If nothing else is available, check Starlink’s site to see how soon service might be available at the address.


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