Just Where Is U.S. Broadband in Relation to Other Nations?

Carl Weinschenk

We know a bit more now about how the economic stimulus package than when I wrote this post in December. The broadband element of the stimulus isn't huge, but it will be a net positive for vendors -- who need every little piece of good news they can garner -- and will give a small but essential push to WiMax and other wireless technologies. We also learned that since it is a stimulus package-not a long-term growth initiative-the amount given to broadband was depressed by the absence of a national broadband policy.


The coverage of the high-profile broadband element of the economic stimulus package has led many people to spend time during the past several months thinking about the overall state of the U.S. broadband infrastructure. The common wisdom is that it is in woeful condition, stranded on the list among countries that didn't exist a decade or two ago-or that most Americans hadn't heard of.


That might still be true, but now there is at least some evidence countering that thought. Saul Hensell of The New York Times described a presentation at the Columbia/Georgetown Seminar by Leonard Waverman, the dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary. Waverman's "Connectivity Scorecard"-a link to his site is provided-measures not how many people get broadband, but the economic activity that connectivity generates. In that measure, Waverman says, the United States is top dog among the 25 nations metered. The reason, the piece says, is because businesses and the government make the best use of the platform and have a technically adept work force at their disposal.


The Waverman study is an excellent jumping-off point to the broader debate of what really is important in the measurement of broadband. Is it pure penetration, which usually is the metric? This TMCnet piece, for instance, discusses an open letter from The Yankee Group's Emily Green to President Obama on the importance of broadband in the overall economic recovery. Green bemoans the fact that the United States is in 19th place worldwide in penetration. Is this the key metric? Or, as Waverman says, is it the economic value generated? Is the most telling statisitic some measure of the connectivity gap between rich and poor and/or rural and urban? The point is that to truly figure out where we are, it is important to precisely clarify the terms of the debate instead of just pointing to a single number as an indicator of where the nation stands.

Even that raw penetration information can come into question. Drew Clark, the founder and executive director of of BroadbandCensus, writes that the information we have about the broadband in the United States is lacking. The government, he says, spends about $8 billion annually on statistics, but very little looks at broadband deployments. He adds that the information that has been collected is being used in questionable ways. Clark offers an update on what is being done to create such a record, including the "State Broadband Planning and Assessment Act," which he says could be an amendment to the fiscal stimulus bill.

There is a lot of interesting material-some internationally delivered, some not -- in this TG Daily piece detailing iSuppli numbers on the status of broadband growth worldwide. iSuppli says that there were only 3.1 million new broadband connections made last year, down from 6.5 million in 2007. A nugget of analysis in the piece speaks volumes about how the nation assesses its broadband status: In explaining why growth in the states has slowed down, the writer suggests that penetration is high in urban areas and that providers' reluctantance to wire rural areas may account for the slowdown. Thus, these areas may suffer until 4G wireless platforms emerge. That suggests that there indeed is a rural/urban divide -- and further fuels the idea that merely counting how many broadband connections there are in aggregate is an inadequate measure.

Folks who follow this sector have gotten accustomed to the idea that the United States is shockingly behind other countries in broadband penetration. This certainly may be true. But the bigger truth is that we are only beginning to get a firm grasp on where we are as a nation. That may be better than our ranking indicates-or it could even be worse.

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