Given the dismal state of broadband connections in America, it was illuminating recently to hear a major telecom executive paint a rosy picture of where the country stands. When Wall Street Journal Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray asked how the United States ranks in broadband, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg didn't hesitate: "One. Not even close."
To support his statement, Seidenberg claimed that "in the U.S., there is greater household penetration of access to the Internet than any country in Europe." Compare that with what Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski recently told a Senate committee: "Our record shows roughly 65 percent adoption in the U.S. compared to significantly higher adoption percentages—up to 90 percent or more—for some countries in Asia and Western Europe."
How can two people arrive at such radically different assessments? Seidenberg is deliberately conflating "access" and "adoption"—the difference between who has the option of buying broadband service and who has actually done so. Using Seidenberg's logic, Americans also have universal access to health care, college, and employment. Dispelling this sort of misinformation, however, isn't always easy. One of the big problems in this debate is that the data about broadband are as spotty and unreliable as the connections themselves. And, taking a page from the playbook of big oil and tobacco, the telecom companies are spending millions to further confuse the issue, spending about $100 million in 2009 alone in lobbying fees. With all the bogus information out there, hucksters like Seidenberg can lie through their teeth and get away with it.
Here's what we do know: If you simply look at broadband "penetration"—a measure of broadband subscribers relative to the population—the U.S. is ranked 15th by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 27 broadband subscribers per 100 people (check out Table 1d). And another key organization, the International Telecommunications Union, ranks the United States 16th. Just one decade ago, the United States was at the top of the list.
But penetration doesn't tell the whole story. To get an up-to-date picture of where we actually stand, the New America Foundation—where we both work—recently took a very close look at both speeds and prices in more than a dozen leading broadband countries. As it turns out, U.S. residents paid more for bandwidth than nearly every other country surveyed. Typically, the lowest price for broadband in the United States, not counting promotions and bundled deals, costs an average of $35 a month for a measly 1 megabit per second connection. Twice this speed is available in Denmark and Canada for lower prices; more strikingly, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Sweden have broadband available for under $20 a month. Additionally, the fastest speeds in the United States are comparatively slow. The common top speed available for residential services in the Unites States is 50 Mbps (and costs $145 a month), while several nations have speeds available that are up to four times faster, for less than $60 a month.
According to the FCC's National Broadband Plan, the no. 1 reason that those without broadband cite for not having broadband is cost. Given that broadband is more expensive here than abroad, it's no surprise the United States lags behind a growing list of other countries. Subscribers in the United States pay more per megabit of bandwidth than countries across both our oceans. To remedy this, the FCC has a plan that's the equivalent of the United States entering the Grand Prix with the goal of finishing last. The National Broadband Plan wants all Americans to have access to 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds by 2020. In that same time frame, the plan also proposes a neatly framed 100 Mbps download, 50 Mbps upload connection for 100 million homes.