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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    I’d like to know why I can’t get decent broadband in suburban Washington DC? Verizon made a big fuss about installing FIOS in my neighborhood about 3 years ago. They dug up a bunch of lawns in the neighborhoods and made a mess of things, so they stopped all work and just said they will return some day to finish up the cable work. 3 years later and nothing. I think the problem is more with incompetence and not enough investment in the infrastructure.

  2. Grewgills says:

    Cable was/is also almost universally available for high speed internet access in at least Western Europe. We were able to get 16 Mbps through our cable company in Leiden a few years before my family in Birmingham and Los Angeles had that option.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think it’s important to understand just how short we’re talking about. I’m too lazy to look it up right now but IIRC the distance from you to your nearest switch needs to be under 15,000 meters for the forms of DSL that are most commonly deployed to provide reliable service at high speed. For highly compact areas, i.e. cities, that’s not outside the realm of possibility. It’s impractical for rural or some suburban use.

    There are other reasons it’s complicated in the U. S. besides just our size: complex regulatory environment, local telephone monopolies with varying degrees of motivation, reluctance to engage in the capital investment (particularly right now) leap to mind.

  4. DC Loser says:

    There certainly needs to be more competition in broadband. How do you cover the distance? In China, much of the broadband is provided by the Ministry of Railways, which uses its right-of-ways for laying cables. This allows them to lay and bury cables anywhere the railway goes, which in effect is everywhere in China. This allows them to adopt a nationwide approach for broadband.

  5. Bithead says:

    It seems to me the peope who don’t understand the dynamics involved, here, also do not understand the dynamics involved with our transportation needs. Anyone who doesn’t understand why broadband is troublesome in Wyoming isn’t going to understand why mass transit, or for nthat matter, the ‘smart’ car isn’t going to work well, there, either.

    Yet, we’ll willingly place such people in charge of the systems of the world via bodies like the UN, because ‘Europe does it better’. Or, Sweeden. Or whatever.

  6. WR says:

    Bithead’s right! We’re the greatest country in the world. Therefore our broadband is faster and better than any of those stinking socialist countries, no matter what those sneering sissies say. It’s just like our health care! We’ve got the best health care in the world and we know it’s true because we say it really loud!

    USA! USA! USA!

  7. WR says:

    And on a slightly more serious note…

    DC Loser, you point out that China is successfully spreading broadband faster than us because the government is able to adopt a nationwide approach. And that somehow turns into an argument for… more competition?

  8. Bithead says:

    We’re the greatest country in the world. Therefore our broadband is faster and better than any of those stinking socialist countries, no matter what those sneering sissies say

    And what mind altering substance was required to get THAT out of what I wrote?

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    I note that although several commenters have mentioned speed nobody has suggested why our highspeed Internet costs more. I’ll suggest some reasons: history and local monopolies. Until 25 years ago most telephone service in the U. S. was provided by a single company: AT&T. They were a monopoly and charged pretty much what they wanted.

    When Ma Bell was split into the Baby Bells in 1984 it was largely along local lines. They had local monopolies and, generally speaking, didn’t compete each other at all, especially on price.

    Highspeed Internet is dependent on who owns the copper (now fiber) and, mostly, that’s who’s owned them all along. Putting in new lines is an expensive proposition, it’s being done slowly, and the telephone service providers are reluctant to undermine their own products and services.

  10. John Burgess says:

    Just an anecdote, but there you go…

    I have FiOS to the left of me and to the right of me. The management of my apartment complex, however, has not permitted Verizon to tear up the parking areas to install the fiber.

    I have a hybrid system–as sold to many institutions like universities and prisons–that combines a site-wide Direct TV antenna cabled to the various apartments. Through the same cable, the apartments are connected to a T1 located at the service head. I am confident that the management company gets a kickback from the provider as it threw out Comcast a few years ago to replace it with this.

    On good days, I get 4,700 mbps download and 400 kbps upload. On bad days, my download can drop to 24 bps, with no upload. I can only blame a sketchy installation of the base equipment.

    Clearly, this is an impediment to broader-band Internet service, but it’s one well outside the realm of government regulation (I hope).

  11. odograph says:

    It’s an odd history that put cabled broadband under city council management, but I have a rule I bet most of you could endorse:

    A city may grant a monopoly to first cable provider, extending no longer than 10 years. After 10 years the city must consider all offers top provide secondary service to all or part their territory, on their own merits. Cities are not required to accept all secondary entrants, only to consider them.

    I also predict we’ll never see it, for reasons of regulatory capture. The pervasive cable monopolies are just worth too frickin’ much to our corporations to let choice (freedom?) reenter the picture.

  12. odograph says:

    Bithead, are you aware that you are defending government managed monopolies in the braodband area, and that there isn’t actually a free market?

    (Token competition between 1 cable company, 1 phone company, and 1 satellite company is just that.)

  13. Bithead says:

    Bithead, are you aware that you are defending government managed monopolies in the braodband area, and that there isn’t actually a free market?

    My ‘defense’ as you call it was not aimed at anything but the logistics involved. Look, even assuming there was capital and service buyers, there would still be the physical limitations (Terrain, etc) and the sheer size of the areas in question. That’s why I drew the comparison to transportation; it’s only from the logistical framework that such an argument makes sense.

    We keep trying to argue both the communications and transportation issues at the political level as if it’s going to get solved there…. wave a magical lawbook over the problem and it goes away. Well, things don’t work that way in the real world.

  14. Bithead says:

    Clearly, this is an impediment to broader-band Internet service, but it’s one well outside the realm of government regulation (I hope).

    I would hope so, as well. and yours is certainly an odd situation, in terms of the whole.

    Still, I can’t help but think that local government at least gets involved in this kind of thing to the same degree as, say the government getting involved in zoning/NIMBY arguments with service suppliers. Cell towers, for example. Power lines. Follow?

  15. odograph says:

    I think our broadband is very much constrained by bad law, regulatory capture, and government protecting corporate interests.

    It’s very sad that neither party is interested in changing that, but from their perspective I’m sure it works very well. I’m sure Warner and Comcast support congress critters of both parties.

    I mean, we can worry about the remaining few percent of the population “not served” but that isn’t where the action is. Its really with the 90+ percent who are locked into monopolies.

  16. Michael says:

    I think our broadband is very much constrained by bad law, regulatory capture, and government protecting corporate interests.

    I doubt you’d want every startup ISP digging a new ditch in your yard to run their own lines, or putting up new towers to run their own antennas, etc.

    I mean, we can worry about the remaining few percent of the population “not served” but that isn’t where the action is. Its really with the 90+ percent who are locked into monopolies.

    You’re either going to have a monopoly, a nationalized system, or a ruined environment. You pick.

  17. sam says:

    We’re the greatest country in the world. Therefore our broadband is faster and better than any of those stinking socialist countries, no matter what those sneering sissies say

    And what mind altering substance was required to get THAT out of what I wrote?

    I think it was in the penumbra, Bit.

  18. glasnost says:

    It’s very sad that neither party is interested in changing that, but from their perspective I’m sure it works very well. I’m sure Warner and Comcast support congress critters of both parties.

    Both parties are corrupt on this to a degree, but the degree is in no way equal. That’s why all the Net Neutrality supporters – attempting to protect hosting and surfing from the same kinds of monopolies – are democrats. The Democrats occasionally make feeble efforts to resist market monopolies and protect consumers from inferior service and confiscatory rates; the Republicans aren’t just in the pocket but working to expand it.

  19. odograph says:

    Michael, did the cell phone system, less restricted because it fell under federal management “ruin the environment?”

    James, please explain how we have an open market?

  20. James Joyner says:

    James, please explain how we have an open market?

    We’ve never had an open market in telecom but we’ve gotten much closer in recent years through deregulation. But the phone and cable companies have a huge first mover advantage that, in areas with low population density, will ward off competitors.

  21. sam says:

    Today’s Times has this story in its Bits blog:

    The Broadband Gap: Why Is Theirs Cheaper?

    The nut:

    Broadband is cheaper in many other countries than in the United States.

    “You have a pretty uncompetitive market by European standards,” said Tim Johnson, the chief analyst at Point-Topic, a London consulting firm.

    Other countries have lower costs for the same reasons their DSL service is faster. Dense urban areas reduce some of the cost of building networks. In addition, governments in some countries subsidized fiber networks.

    But the big difference between the United States and most other countries is competition.

    “Now hold on there,” you might say to me. Since I wrote that many countries don’t have cable systems and the bulk of broadband is run by way of DSL through existing phone wires, how can there be competition? Aren’t those owned by monopoly phone companies?

    True enough. But most big countries have devised a system to create competition by forcing the phone companies to share their lines and facilities with rival Internet providers.

    Not surprisingly, the phone companies hate this idea, often called unbundling, and tend to drag their feet when it is introduced. So it requires rather diligent regulators to force the telcos to play fair. And the effect of this scheme depends a lot on details of what equipment is shared and at what prices.

    Damn socialist bastards.

  22. odograph says:

    James, maybe you just repeated this line, but I dislike it:

    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.)

    As you say, we don’t have open competition.

  23. Bithead says:

    So, do these ‘cheaper’ prices on the phone bills, include the cost of the government subsidy, or is that hidden?

    Look, in the end the question comes down to, would we ahve better broadband coverage absent governmental over-involvement of the like we’ve seen? The answer is ‘yes’. Given the logistics of the physical, it would end up being more expensive in many areas of the country, but it wold be a better situation.

    Odo’s point about a government backed monopoly(ies) is well taken, and though that situation is slowly changing, That’s what is really preventing better broadband access in the rural parts of our country… smaller firms… start ups, if you will, won’t invest jst to see themselves get knocked out of busienss or bought up once established.. and bigger firms, meanwhile, are never going to invest on cost effectivements grounds for their investors.

  24. Michael says:

    Michael, did the cell phone system, less restricted because it fell under federal management “ruin the environment?”

    It didn’t ruin the environment because the cellular providers were given government monopolies on the spectrum.

  25. Michael says:

    Look, in the end the question comes down to, would we ahve better broadband coverage absent governmental over-involvement of the like we’ve seen? The answer is ‘yes’.

    Depends on what you’re talking about when you say “governmental over-involvement”. Government has been relatively uninvolved in data services like broadband, having less there certainly wouldn’t have made a difference.

    Government has been fairly involved in the physical lines themselves, either by granting local cable monopolies, or forcing telecoms to let competitors use their lines and COs, then maybe you have a point. I don’t think less involvement here would have helped either though. Monopoly grants have coverage requirements, making cable cover rural areas it might not have otherwise covered. Recent changes to deregulate the telecom lines has actually forced competing ISPs out of business because they can’t afford to run their own physical lines.

  26. Bithead says:

    Depends on what you’re talking about when you say “governmental over-involvement”. Government has been relatively uninvolved in data services like broadband, having less there certainly wouldn’t have made a difference.

    Here’s where we part company. The degree of involvement in preventing the traditional telcos from getting involved in broadband for as long as they did,(both directly and unintentionally) I think, hurt us in terms of getting broadband up to par faster.

    It didn’t ruin the environment because the cellular providers were given government monopolies on the spectrum.

    Is it just me, or does this line make no sense whatever to anyone else?

  27. Michael says:

    The degree of involvement in preventing the traditional telcos from getting involved in broadband for as long as they did

    Telcos were involved in broadband from it’s very inception. Even before DSL came out, they had ISDN, Frame Relay, etc. There was certainly no delay in their involvement.

    Is it just me, or does this line make no sense whatever to anyone else?

    That was for odograph. I told him that he’d have to settle for one of: monopoly, nationalization, or a ruined environment. He mistakenly thought that cellular providers weren’t given monopolies.

  28. Bithead says:

    That was for Odo

    Ah. I see.

    I was about to ask, though, what evidence we have of cell phones ruining the environment. Or for that matter, how they would even absent the other factors you mention.

    Guess I’ll postpone that question for another time.

  29. Bithead says:

    Telcos were involved in broadband from it’s very inception. Even before DSL came out, they had ISDN, Frame Relay, etc. There was certainly no delay in their involvement.

    Well, here’s a dynamic you’re missing; ISDN and FR for the most part didn’t penetrate the non-business market, which is where the vast majority of the judgements about the EU’s broadband superiority comes from.

  30. Michael says:

    Well, here’s a dynamic you’re missing; ISDN and FR for the most part didn’t penetrate the non-business market, which is where the vast majority of the judgements about the EU’s broadband superiority comes from.

    Many individuals has ISDN lines for home use, though the per-minute charges on it’s use made it prohibitively expensive. Frame Relay isn’t all that different from DSL, except that bandwidth wasn’t over-sold like they do for DSL, and you were given a dedicated circuit (though now even those are switched virtual circuits). None of this has anything to do with government involvement, though. Mostly the US is behind Europe and Asia because of demographics.

  31. Bithead says:

    Many individuals has ISDN lines for home use, though the per-minute charges on it’s use made it prohibitively expensive.

    Which is precisely the point as regards penetration into that market. That’s particularly true when price is apparently one of the arguments being made about how the Europeans are handling broadband.

    None of this has anything to do with government involvement, though.

    Oh, yes it does. Because, until such time as the restrictions were lifted from things like cell phones systems and cable, broadband, or what passed for it, was very securely in the hands of the telcos. Whom, parenthetically, argued against these others having the capability of handling broadband to the commission, complaining that the cable company didn’t need the additional income, and given the state of government regulation, the telephone companies did.

    The state of our Internet system at that point in our history is a tale of overregulation and a total lack of innovation thereby. We have improved somewhat since then, but we’re still suffering from the effects of that overregulation today even though much of it has been deleted from the books.