U.S. Lags in Broadband, Apparently

Although the United States is an innovator as far as the Internet goes – after all, we invented the thing – in an international ranking of nations’ broadband penetration, it isn’t even in the top 10. According to recent research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there are about 22 broadband connections per 100 people in the U.S. population, putting it in 15th place out of 30 OECD countries.

So who is the leader, you ask? Why, technology powerhouse Denmark, of course. The Danes have more than 34 connections per 100 people, narrowly edging out the Netherlands. Incidentally, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden also landed in the top 10, which might lead one to wonder if Scandinavians have some sort of genetic propensity for the Web.

Of course, there are other ways to measure broadband capabilities, such as the infrastructure and average speed of connection. The United States also lags in this respect: The vast majority of U.S. broadband connections are split nearly evenly between cable and DSL, whereas in Japan, more than one-third is fiber-optic. As a result, average broadband download speeds in Japan are climbing past 60 megabits per second. By comparison, the United States’ average speed is just shy of 2 megabits per second.

According to Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America – the union that commissioned the report – this is just deplorable. He said the United States has “pathetic speeds compared to the rest of the world. People don’t pay attention to the fact that the country that started the commercial Internet is falling woefully behind.”

These assessments certainly are gloomy, but a little perspective is called for. If you dig a below the surface, you’ll see that these trends can be attributed more to demographics than underinvestment in broadband in this country.

For example, the countries high on the list of broadband saturation – Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, etc. – have mostly smaller populations, and smaller family sizes. They have more connections because they generally have fewer people per household.

As far as broadband connection speeds go, the top two – Japan and South Korea – also are countries where mobile devices are the preferred platform for consuming Web media. Thus, it stands to reason they would have faster connections. In contrast, the majority of Americans still prefer to watch TV shows and movies on their televisions, so they aren’t moving as many massive media files through the Internet — yet.

Make no mistake: There are still millions of people in the United States who aren’t Internet-savvy, and there are large areas in this country that are underserved when it comes to broadband connectivity. Still, the U.S. broadband market is huge: It’s by far the largest, making up nearly a third of all 221 million users in OECD nations (as of June 2007). And as demand grows and technology gets cheaper, the market will only go up in terms of access and speed.

– Brian Summerfield, bsummerfield@certmag.com

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Brian Summerfield

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