Losing the Broadband Race

Whenever we post a dire update in this space about the dismal state of America’s infrastructure, we’re usually talking about crumbling roads and bridges. Well, it looks like it may be time to add fiber-optic networks to the list.

It’s not that our fiber-optic networks are deteriorating (in fact, they’re steadily expanding and picking up speed), it’s just that we haven’t built enough of them. Technology experts are warning that the United States is falling dangerously behind in making high-speed broadband available to a majority of American consumers and businesses. Even developing nations like Romania, Moldova and Latvia are far outpacing America, according to Ookla, the most widely cited indexer of download speeds around the globe.

Ookla’s latest monthly index, updated Jan. 1, has Hong Kong leading the field with an average speed of 68.94 megabits per second (Mbps). Singapore (59.29), Romania (56.94), South Korea (48.64), Japan (41.78), Macau (40.76), Lithuania (39.85), Sweden (39.46), Netherlands (38.92) and Taiwan (36.96) round out the top ten Net speedsters.

The U.S. also is not to be found in the following group of ten, which includes the likes of no. 13 Latvia (34.43), no. 15 Republic of Moldova (31.59) and no. 16 Andorra (30.88).

America does not take a bow until 32nd place on the index, averaging 20.55 Mbps, a relative snail’s pace compared to the fastest services available globally. Ookla’s index is a rolling mean throughput in Mbps over the past 30 days where the mean distance between the user and the server is less than 300 miles.

Based on Ookla’s findings, a recent report in The New York Times calculated that it takes nearly three times longer to download a two-hour high-definition movie in San Antonio, TX than it does in Riga, Latvia’s capital. The average time in Riga was 13 minutes, compared to 35 minutes in San Antonio.

The World Economic Forum, meanwhile, ranks the United States 35th out of 148 countries in Internet bandwith, measuring available capacity in each country. Other studies have ranked the U.S. between 14th and 31st in average connection speed.

The Obama Administration has warned that “to create jobs and grow wages at home, and to compete in the global information economy, the delivery of fast, affordable and reliable broadband service to all corners of the United States must be a national imperative.” According to the Times report, the White House estimates that since 2002 expanding Internet access has contributed an average of $34 billion a year to the U.S. economy, or about 0.26 percent of GDP growth.

However, while the overall U.S. broadband speed average currently won’t get us anywhere near the medals podium, several U.S. locations have taken it upon themselves to build high-speed municipal fiber-optic networks that can match the best connections in Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Communities that now offer the fastest broadband available in the U.S. include Bristol, VA, Chattanooga, TN and Lafayette, LA.

Chattanooga residents can get 1 gigabit per second service for about $70 per month. In Seoul, a gigabit can be had for as low as $31 per month, primarily due to government subsidies.

Some technology analysts, noting wide disparities in population distributions, say it’s specious to compare America’s Internet infrastructure to that of a tiny country like Latvia. Maybe so, but the second-tier status of U.S. broadband has a depressingly familiar ring to it.

The Interstate Highway System, ordered into existence by President Eisenhower (who wanted to replicate Germany’s Autobahn after the war), was the envy of the world when it was completed three decades ago. Today, our roads and bridges receive an overall grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

NASA’s space program succeeded in planting an American flag on the moon in 1969. Today, we don’t even have the capacity to launch our astronauts into space, instead hitching rides on Russian rockets.

You get the picture (even if it takes a bit longer to download it than in Moldova). It doesn’t take a gigabit of data-crunching to figure out that the U.S. needs to get its infrastructure act together, and soon.