Broadband Gap: Why America Lags Behind
Saul Hansell details the fact that broadband Internet access is faster, cheaper, and more universal in most of the developed world, if not as much so as many think. The explanation as to why is rather obvious but continually overlooked in just about any comparison ever made between the United States and other countries:
Urban density explains much of that disparity. In most of the world, by far the most common way to deliver broadband is DSL technology that sends data over copper phone lines. The shorter the length of the wire from the phone company office to your home, the faster the service can be delivered. The first generation of DSL could offer speeds of up to 7 megabits per second. The very latest generation offers up to 100 Mbps for very short distances.
The reason you see offers of DSL service in many European countries of 10 or 20 Mbps, sometimes more, is that in densely populated urban areas, the telephone companies have been able to wire homes using shorter connections and thus faster speeds.
Half the population of South Korea lives in very dense apartment complexes, mostly in or near Seoul. And most of its very fast broadband service has been delivered by fiber connections into the basements of these buildings, then delivered by fast DSL up to each apartment.
It’s simply much harder to get broadband access to Wyoming and Alaska than in Japan. The good news, Hansell notes, is that we’re closing the gap.
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias retorts, “Perhaps it’s not feasible, at this point, to deploy ultra-fast broadband across the entire United States. But this doesn’t explain why the densely populated parts of the United States don’t have state-of-the-art broadbrand. The reason we don’t have state-of-the-art broadband is that we haven’t made the regulatory policies and public investments that would bring it about.”
That’s a fair point, which his commentators actually address pretty well.
- We’ve made a regulatory decision to subsidize rural broadband, so the averages matter.
- We’ve made a regulatory decision to allow open competition, which means we let people unwilling to pay for high speed pay for cheaper access which, in turn, creates diseconomies of scale and disincentives for creating the infrastructure to produce the highest speeds. (Which is why, for example, DC Loser can’t get Fios in the DC suburbs but I can.)
- American plans are mostly all-you-can-eat whereas many in Europe and elsewhere are pay-as-you-go, making flat rate comparisons unhelpful.
Photo by Flickr user Jason Tromm, used under Creative Commons license.