Myth #1: America is falling behind in broadband.

To get all 10 myths, click on Downloads on the upper right.

Myth

The USA, once the world’s leader in broadband internet networks, lags behind in broadband speed as other countries, namely South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Denmark, do a better job to deploy high speed networks.

Where this notion comes from

This charge has been mentioned intermittently in the media in the last few years.  It was the fact America ranked #22 in Akamai’s measurement in 2009.  Since then, however, the U.S. has risen to #8 in that study, and measures are taken quarterly.   The book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age by Harvard Law professor Susan Crawford uses the 2009 figure, and that old number has been frequently repeated.

Other quoted data comes from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report portal is a double-edged sword. While it offers the most comprehensive data set, some measures maybe four or five years old.

Possible explanations

Journalists misunderstand the data or quote outdated statistics. There are many studies of broadband speeds, deployment,  adoption and investment.   Some are published every two years.  Each study has a different methodology and may focus on different variables:  subscriptions, speeds, prices,  bundles and so on.  Also, country comparisons are not necessarily meaningful.  Not all countries are created equally.   Thus differences in geography, population, market structure, population density, education, income, taxation and so on can drive one country to perform well on one measure but poorly on another.  Holding other variables constant, a study measuring per capita vs. household will have different outcomes.  Also no country is assured a top position.

At any one time, it is possible to cherry pick the data to prove that America is doing well or poorly. The point, however, is too look at the trend in reliable data over time.

There is a business in selling books and newspapers based on bad news, the crise du jour.  The ”America falling behind” mantra is trotted out at least once a decade along with a litany of books.  This kind of naysayer-ism that sells books and newspapers is  genre called ”airport economics”, referring to business books frequently sold at airports. Books such as Trading Places – How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It (1993) are designed be read in the length of a cross-country flight.  When you take off in New York, the world is coming to an end, but by the time you land in Los Angeles, all will be righted if the author’s recommendations are implemented.

When America went through a recession in the 1980s, Japan was vilified for exporting too many high quality electronics and automobiles.  Japan Inc. was the zaibatsu writ large, and when the Mitsubishi Group bought Rockefeller Center, it was a considered game over for the uSA. None of these books predicted the Japanese bubble bursting the subsequent 25 year recession.

Then we had the India and China threat typified by Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat. India and China are eating our lunch, we were told.  The reality is more nuanced, to say the least.  Then there were a succession of warnings about emerging countries, the Asian Tigers, the BRICS, the Next 11, CIVETS and so on. Now that we have run out of nations, we turn to issues.

America is falling behind in broadband internet is current lamentation conducted by Susan Crawford in her book and journalists David Cay Johnston,  David Carr, John Judis and Eduardo Porter in the publications New York Times, New Republic, Wired, Bloomberg News, and the Huffington Post.   It’s fashionable now to say the American internet is slow and expensive and that telecom companies are cheating you.  It certainly sells newspapers and books.  After some months, the New York Times finally published an op-ed to counter the one side of the story.

Professors and academics need to develop a raison d’être for their research.  There is fierce competition in academic world for funding, and teachers with bestselling books are assured resources for their institutes, research assistants, and so on.

Facts about broadband internet in America

As for the leading studies of broadband, America ranks…

  • #6 in in the percentage of users with performance faster than 10 Mbps (OECD).
  • #7th in “High Speed Broadband Adoption” (the proportion of IP addresses with an Average Connection Speed greater than 10 Mbps), a tie with Sweden (OECD).
  • #7 in increase in broadband penetration (OECD).
  • #8 in fastest internet broadband speeds, and and America is moving faster than 9 of the top 10 nations (Akamai).
  • Broadband connections of at least 6 Mbps increased by 24% and connections of at least 10 Mbps increased by 26%, (FCC)
  • The average network capacity of all broadband connections in the United States was 31.5 Mbps in the fourth quarter of 2012  (Akamai)
  • The FCC in their most recent report of broadband noted the following in February 2013 that many ISPs continue to closely meet or exceed the speeds they advertise.

But many will not be satisfied with that.  They want to America to be #1.  Some US cities (New York, Washington, Baltimore, San Francisco) are already faster broadband speeds than the current fastest countries South Korea, Japan, and Denmark.  Of the world’s most populous countries, China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, the USA has the fastest speed by far.

Data

  • Akamai State of the Internet Report Q4 2012is the most accurate because it reports actual internet speeds. Akamai, the world’s leading content delivery network (CDN), collects over 1 billion unique IP addresses per day.  This report is differs from the OECD which complies comparisons based upon government surveys, not live traffic data.
  • The OECD Broadband Portal offers a wealth of information on countries around the world and is the most comprehensive, albeit imperfect, data set..  The OECD gathers the information by sending a survey to the national government of each country.  It does not measure broadband directly.  Depending on the measure, the data may come from different years.  Some are even as old as 2008.
  • Network equipment providers such as Cisco Systems Inc. and its cohorts such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are in a position to collect valuable data.  However their business model is predicated on selling more equipment, so their data may might exaggerate the need for broadband networks.
  • The Information Technology & Innovation Forum (ITIF) provides an excellent report “The Whole Picture: America’s Broadband Networks Really Stand”, deconstructing the leading studies.  It notes,  “Of the nations that lead the United States in any of the four key metrics (deployment, adoption, speed and price), no nation leads in more than two”.

Analysis

Why are there two opposing views?  America can’t be both picking up and falling behind.

To a certain extent, we can cherry pick data to create the story we want.  However, it’s the trends over time that matter.  Yes, we can find at any one moment snapshot or instance that the US isn’t doing so well, but the long term trends are what matter.  And there is a consistent story:  the U.S. is doing well and getting better.

Also, you can always fall back on your own experience.  How is your internet today compared to 10 years ago?  How much would it cost for your to get content and communication services if you didn’t have the internet?  Put what you spend per month on internet service in context.  For most people, it’s about the same as their daily Starbucks run.

Reality

The data shows that America is picking up in broadband.  Plus America is leading in the world in LTE, the high speed mobile standard.