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When It Comes To Broadband, U.S. Plays Follow The Leader

The United States often views itself as a paragon of technology innovation and deployment. In some cases, that view is correct, but not when it comes to broadband deployment, where the country lags considerably behind other major nations. Here's why.

No Solid Data From The Feds
Associate Director John Horrigan at Pew Internet noted there are indications that our broadband access tends to be slower and less capable than that of a number of other nations, but the lack of solid data from the federal government makes this hard to quantify. "Another element that we don't have data on," said Horrigan, "is the fact that there's not good data in the U.S. on connection speed. Yes, people are adopting broadband at a good clip in the U.S., but we don't know how fast their connections are. The FCC has no good data on network speed, and that's not a question that you can reliably get by doing a telephone survey."

Increasingly, noted Horrigan, the international debate is not only about rates of broadband adoption but also about speed and quality of the broadband networks. On that metric, the U.S. isn't faring well.

Japan's fastest-growing broadband service offers speeds in excess of 100 Mbps, and Korea offers 100 Mbps uploads and downloads. Most current U.S. customers are lucky to get one-tenth or even one one-hundredth of that speed, particularly for uploads -- and they pay more for the lower speed.

By OECD estimates, the U.S. price-per-megabit of connection speed is more than 10 times as high in the U.S. as in Japan. And for sheer speed, overseas offerings blow the U.S. away. While major U.S. carriers, such as Verizon, report initiatives to bring high-speed fiber to the home, and a Verizon spokesperson reported current plans to reach 3 million homes per year with high-speed fiber, that's roughly 1% of the U.S. population, even if that target is met. Only 1% to 2% of U.S. broadband users in Pew's latest study report having fiber or T1-speed access, while some other nations are more aggressively pursuing deployment of fiber to the home and other forms of very high-speed connectivity.

A Rural Explanation? Hardly
One of the rationales often given for lower broadband penetration in the U.S. is that low population density makes broadband deployment, especially in rural areas, considerably more expensive in the U.S. than among more dense populations in countries such as Korea, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. That argument falters, however, when one considers that five of the 11 nations that lead the U.S. in per capita broadband penetration, including Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Canada, have significantly lower population densities than the U.S.

Another argument commonly invoked for lower-than-expected U.S broadband penetration rates notes that higher income tends to be associated with increased adoption of any new technology, and most of the countries with the highest rates of broadband use tend to be highly affluent. Despite its comparatively high poverty rate, the United States is ranked second overall for gross domestic product among OECD nations, ahead of every nation except Luxembourg, and the World Bank's latest numbers for 2005 estimate the U.S. is seventh in worldwide gross national income per capita, and third in per-capita purchasing power. As a rule, prosperity clearly correlates with broadband access, but the United States is comparatively more affluent than most of the nations it trails in the broadband arena.

A third demographic possibility which could affect the analysis of broadband adoption rates is median age of the population. There are indications that lower age tends to correlate with heavier Internet use in general, and broadband use specifically, as younger users tend to be more likely to be early adopters of new products and technologies. Yet the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the U.S. has a statistically younger population based on median age than all the countries -- except Iceland and Korea -- that are ranked higher for broadband adoption.

The bottom line is that the United States currently has a strong and growing broadband infrastructure and is still a powerful innovator and test bed for advanced research and development in this area. But the U.S. isn't even close to being the leader in widespread broadband availability and usage and, in fact, may be dropping further behind the "first tier" of broadband-rich countries in Northern Europe and Asia.

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