size matters

Why the US isn’t the world leader in speedy internet access

If you’ve heard about the backward state of US internet infrastructure, you’ve probably read the anecdotes about Riga, the Latvian capital has faster-than-fast internet speeds, or Estonia, with its post-Soviet technology obsession has become an internet leader.

Still, both countries lag behind the US on the World Economic Forum’s ranking (pdf) of internet bandwidth available per user. The US, which ranked 35th in 2012, offers the average citizen 62.3 kB per second, while the top performer, Luxembourg, offers its citizens connectivity at the thrilling speed of 4 MB per second. The top 10 providers of high average bandwidth have something in common: They are small, rich countries—Hong Kong, Malta, Singapore, and Iceland round out the top five. While the US has high-speed internet access in some cities that out-strips other countries, slow speeds in rural areas drag down the average.

But a similar phenomenon plays out when it comes to broadband penetration: The US is ranked 14th in the OECD, a group of wealthy economies, with only 28.8% of the population—90 million people—accessing a fixed broadband subscription, which is three times as many as Japan, the country with the second-most subscribers, and 30 times more than Switzerland, the country with the highest penetration.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the US and other countries is subsidies. South Korea, another economy whose internet infrastructure and wired population often bests the US, has made lowering the cost of internet access a national priority; for example, some of the cost of internet for the low-income population is covered. That would be a hard sell in the US where the idea of subsidizing health care for the poor is controversial.

So the turning point is how much broadband internet can be considered a utility—a public good provided by the private sector. While telecoms are heavily regulated, there’s not the same sense in America that internet access is a necessity in the same way that power, water, and even telephone land-lines are. That view would be a sea-change for policy—while the Obama administration invested in broadband in the 2009 stimulus plan, it still falls behind many other countries that already consider it a public good.

The national broadband goal announced by the president (pdf) is connecting 99% of the nation’s schools by 2018, something South Korea has already done. China, meanwhile, announced this year it would spend $323 billion to put its entire population online by 2020.

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