American broadband infrastructure: A national embarrassment

I'll come right out and say it: The U.S. broadband infrastructure -- both in terms of speed and coverage -- is pathetic and embarrassing. The latest evidence of this travesty comes from a study by the Communication Workers of America which, using data compiled by and, that ranks the U.S. 28th among developed countries, behind more wired (but less economically significant) nations like Sweden and the Netherlands.

Several months ago, I visited the Netherlands and had the rare opportunity to be personally embarrassed by our terrible broadband infrastructure. The Dutch were literally making fun of me. The fact that our country, with its vast resources and its illustrious history -- Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs -- has such terrible internet service should be an outright national scandal.
Amazingly, the U.S. is the only industrialized country without a national broadband policy, a key component of President Obama's domestic policy agenda. But given the trouble Obama is having with health-care reform, his signature domestic issue, Americans would be wise to take something of a jaundiced view toward progress in the national broadband space.

As part of his economic stimulus plan, President Obama intends to spend some $7.2 billion on broadband. (The CWA, which published this study, could be a beneficiary of some of this spending, although many of the biggest telecom and cable companies have been reticent to apply for funds.)

Still, the numbers are very, very discouraging. The average U.S. broadband speed has increased by a meager 1.6 megabits per second, from 3.5 mbps in 2007 to 5.1 mbps in 2009, according to the study. At this pace, the study notes, the U.S. won't catch up to South Korea -- the nation with the fastest broadband speed, at 20.4 mbps -- for 15 years.

The CWA also compared broadband speeds among states, and gave unsurprising results: the states with the fastest speeds are mostly small, heavily populated, Northeast and mid-Atlantic states. Delaware leads with 9.9 mbps, followed closely by Rhode Island. The slowest states are, unsurprisingly, either Southern or remote: Idaho's speed is 2.6 mbps, Alaska's 2.3 mbps. (Full study here.)

CWA president Larry Cohen blasted this discrepancy in a statement: "Every American should have affordable access to high-speed Internet, no matter where they live. This is essential to economic growth and will help maintain our global competitiveness. Unfortunately, fragmented government programs and uneven private sector responses to build out Internet access have left a digital divide across the country."

Art Brodsky, a spokesman for broadband-policy public-interest group Public Knowledge, goes further. "It's glaringly obvious that telecommunications policy for the past eight years has sent the U.S. in exactly the wrong direction," he says. "Whether it's our embarrassing data speeds or our ever-sinking rankings in broadband penetration, the trends have all gone the wrong way."

"We hope that a new group of policymakers will see the wisdom, as many other countries have, of opening up telecom networks to others, of reviving the open, non-discriminatory Internet and encouraging adoption and deployment on terms that serve the public interest," he adds. "Only then will be be able to hold our own with rest of the industrialized world."
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