By Paul Barbagallo
The United States has made “rapid progress” in improving its global position
in broadband, a new report has found.
The report, “The Whole Picture: Where America's Broadband Networks Really
Stand,” compiled by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF),
rebuts arguments that U.S. providers of internet access have been lagging behind
their counterparts around the world in nearly every major category of
measurement--speed, service quality, monthly price, deployment, coverage, and
“American broadband is neither a wasteland nor a utopia,” Richard Bennett,
one of the report's authors, said in remarks Feb. 12 at an event hosted by the
ITIF to release the report.
According to Bennett, most studies on U.S. global competitiveness in
broadband are “out of date” and “analytically deficient.”
To date, most studies have ranked the United States either in the top 20 or
the top 30 nations in the world. For example, 2011 study by Pando Networks, a
company that delivers games and other large files online for other companies,
put the United States at No. 26 in terms of speediest broadband connections.
South Korea led the list followed by Romania and Bulgaria.
In reality, however, U.S. providers may be performing better than that. The
ITIF report points to a study by Akamai Technologies, a maker of software that
helps websites deliver services quicker, which found that the average speed of
Americans' broadband connections ranked seventh-fastest in the world in 2012.
According to the same data, U.S. broadband service actually ranked in the top 10
in download speeds three times over the last five years. (From 2008 to 2011,
Akamai had defined “high speed” as 5 megabits per second (Mps), before raising
the threshold to 10 Mbps last year. Only five nations have made Akamai's top 10
list all five years: Denmark, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and the Netherlands.
Though the report highlights the Akamai data as a sign of progress, some
critics still point to the United States' global position behind countries like
Japan and South Korea.
The report noted several of those critics by name, including Susan Crawford,
a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who served as a special assistant to
President Obama for science, technology, and innovation policy; author David Cay
Johnson; and the Federal Communications Commission, which concluded last August
in a report to Congress that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in
a “reasonable and timely fashion.” That FCC report also found that 19 million
Americans, many of them in rural areas, still lack access to any high-speed
internet access service.
Crawford, meanwhile, contends in her book, Captive Audience, that both
the wireless and wired markets for high-speed internet access have become
heavily concentrated, with neither subject to substantial competition nor much
oversight by the FCC. As a result, prices for broadband remain too high and the
speeds are too slow.
What is more, even where broadband is available in the United States, a third
of Americans opt not to buy high-speed internet access at home, because they
cannot afford it or do not have a computer, she writes.
The authors of the ITIF report did not shy away from the adoption problem,
estimating that the United States is now No. 15 in the world in terms of the
share of households subscribing to a wired broadband service. Korea once again
leads the way with a 97.5 percent adoption rate.
But ITIF's Bennett said continuing to compare the United States and Korea is
unfair, because Korea is much smaller in land mass, with a population more
concentrated in cities.
Despite this, at least 50 million U.S. homes are now connected to networks
with speeds of at least 100 megabits per second. In comparison, only about 2
percent of the households in the European Union have access to broadband
download speeds of 100 megabits per second or greater.
Commenting on the report, Scott Wallsten, senior fellow at the Technology
Policy Institute, said speed should not be the only measure of U.S. broadband
providers' performance globally.
“We know that for today's applications, there's plenty of speed,” Wallsten
said during a panel discussion at the ITIF event. “Netflix streams HD video at
less than 5 Mbps. If you have a 100 megabit connection, is your video going to
be better? No. The question we should be asking is: Are policies that increase
the rate of speed worth the cost?”
Wallsten was referring to “Google Fiber,” a new broadband service available
in Kansas City, Mo., that allows consumers to download applications 100 times
faster than with a typical broadband connection.
Wallsten said he does believe such “gigabit” efforts will lead to more
innovation and experimentation, but rather more competition.
Mindel Del La Torre, chief of the Federal Communications Commission's
International Bureau, said that while global rankings on issues such as
broadband speed may be important, the focus of policymakers should be on the
“We realize that satellite does have a place to play in the United States,”
she said. “Satellites can help serve some of the seven million 'unserved’ homes
in the United States. Some of these new satellites have a lot more capacity than
the old ones.”
As for policy recommendations, the report urges the FCC to continue work to
reallocate radio spectrum for mobile broadband as well as consider subsidies to
help defray the cost of broadband for low-income Americans.
The ITIF is a nonprofit policy research group whose work is supported by
industry as well as foundations.
For the report, visit http://www2.itif.org/2013-whole-picture-america-broadband-networks.pdf.