U.S. Broadband Providers Performing Better Than Their Critics Claim, New Study Finds

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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 adoption.

“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According to Bennett, most studies on U.S. global competitiveness in broadband are “out of date” and “analytically deficient.”

Ranking May Be Higher

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.

Does Speed Really Matter?

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.

Satellite Broadband Also Key

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 policy.

“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.”

Subsidies for Low-Income and More Spectrum

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.

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