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Access to broadband internet is the new access to ports, rail, and electricity

AP/Nick Ut
Bits are the new atoms.
By Christopher Mims
South KoreaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This item has been corrected.

In the 21st century, a small business in Kansas City, Missouri, has at least one very important thing in common with a small business in Seoul, Korea: Both have access to ultra high-speed internet—Kansas City via Google Fiber and Seoul on account of its government championing the rollout of fiber optic internet for over a decade.

That’s one way to look at Akamai’s quarterly “state of the internet” report, in which the content serving company samples requests to its own servers to reveal internet connectivity speeds all over the world.

Countries with the highest portion of their population connected to fast internet.

As usual, countries with the most people with internet connections faster than 10 megabits per second are the densely populated, rich economies of Asia (South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong) and some of Northern Europe (Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland). There are also a couple of surprises: Latvia and the United States. The US is both sprawling, making connectivity more expensive, and beset by broadband monopolists.

The list of countries by average connection speed is similar, although the Czech Republic squeezes Sweden off the list. This measure of internet speed can be skewed by a small number of much faster internet connections, so it’s arguably a less democratic measure of high-speed internet access.

Countries with the highest average internet connection speed

One thing these rankings don’t show is the distribution of internet speeds within a country. In the US, for example, it varies a great deal depending on whether you’re in an urban area with access to a fiberoptic hookup from Google or Verizon or in a remote area with nothing but the a rural telephone collective to connect you.

It’s difficult to disentangle cause and effect when it comes to broadband. Do rich countries spend on it so their citizens can stream more movies, or does having broadband make you rich? But it seems likely that broadband is a great enabler, like mass transit, good ports, a system of functioning courts, and other hallmarks of developed economies.

As Daniel Ek, CEO of Spotify, emphasized to me the last time we spoke, the one reason a country as small as Sweden has a disproportionate share of successful internet startups is that Swedish teenagers grow up taking gigabit internet connections for granted.

And it’s not just traditional web startups and IT giants that need fast internet connectivity. Arguably, as businesses move more functions to the cloudand mobile becomes increasingly important, everyone needs fast internet connectivity. Whether you’re a manufacturer who has to conduct remote meetings with suppliers in distant countries or a sales department that requires its cloud-based customer relations management software to be fast and responsive, fast broadband internet is now a core infrastructure requirement not unlike reliable transportation and energy.

Correction (January 23, 2013): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Switzerland and the Netherlands as Scandinavian countries.

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