Broadband access in the United States continues to grow at an impressive rate, from 60 million users in March 2005 to 84 million in March 2006, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. As-yet unpublished survey data gathered by Pew in December 2006 shows that 45% of respondents now report broadband access at home.
Despite these compelling growth statistics, the reality isn't quite so rosy, especially when comparing broadband progress in the United States with other industrialized countries.
According to a study by U.K.-based Point Topic, as of the third quarter in 2006, the United States led the world in total number of broadband lines installed with 54.5 million lines, followed by China with 48.6 million. The same Point Topic report, however, indicates that broadband growth rates are much higher in other countries -- for example, China is now projected to surpass the U.S. in total broadband lines within 2007, given current trends. And the total number of broadband lines, while a useful figure for some purposes, isn't the most meaningful statistic for measuring how common and widespread access really is, or to compare broadband progress relative to other nations.
For these judgments, metrics based on per-capita household penetration provide a clearer picture. For instance, it's inevitable that, due to its vastly higher population, China will surpass the U.S. in total number of broadband lines, even if the percentage of people in China with broadband lines stays quite small and access is restricted largely to affluent urban areas.
Looking at the more representative measurement of the percentage of those who have access to broadband connectivity, the United States isn't even in the top 10 countries, various studies indicate. President George W. Bush admitted back in 2004 that while broadband use had tripled over the previous four years, the U.S. then ranked 10th among industrialized nations for broadband availability, and he added, "Tenth is 10 spots too low, as far as I'm concerned." Now almost three years later, how much progress have we made, and where do we stand?
Playing The Numbers Game
There are a variety of data points related to broadband penetration in the United States. One thing on which they all agree: the U.S. is far from being in the lead.
The United States currently ranks 12th in broadband adoption rates, significantly down from its ranking of fourth in 2001, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a 30 member-nation group committed to the development of democratic governments and market economies.
The International Telecommunications Union lists the U.S. as 21st worldwide for broadband penetration rate in 2005. Point Topic shows the United States is in 20th place by number of households with broadband access and in 19th by individual broadband access. Those ranks have been falling, not rising, in recent quarters.
And even the good news isn't that good. Some of the more positive data that has been reported is questionable, such as figures presented in a letter written by FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in 2005 and published in The Wall Street Journal, showing what seems to be tremendous growth in U.S. broadband access.
The July, 2005, FCC report that he was citing, which promoted and defended the state of broadband access in the U.S., has received pointed criticism for defining a "high-speed" line as one delivering service of at least 200 Kbps in at least one direction, and for defining a ZIP code as "covered" by broadband access even if just a single broadband line is active in that region. It is true that 200 Kbps was, even in 2005, a minimal definition of "broadband," but it's a level that's largely inadequate for delivering much of what is commonly accepted as "broadband-level service," such as streaming video and swift downloads of large files. It seems clear that measuring "broadband access" by even the relatively modest speeds of 1Mbps or higher would drastically cut the estimate of U.S. broadband penetration.