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Global Broadband and the US: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

by Philomorph / February 7, 2008 12:23 AM PST

Dear Buzz Crew;

This rant is not directed just at you, but at everyone in the tech media that complains about the US being behind the rest of the world in broadband. Most complaints about this rely on incomplete data, referring to stats like the percent of people with broadband, or the availability, speed, etc, of one or two countries without looking at all the important factors. So, to hopefully clear up some of the FUD, here are the bits I think should be considered in this discussion. The numbers are from multiple sources, all gathered over the last 6 months. Sorry the following chart is hard to read, but I couldn?t figure out how to make tabs and formatting work in the forum.

Country ? Pop (Millions) ? Pop Density/km^2 ? % houses w/net ? Total # w/broadband (Millions) ? %pop w/broadband

Monaco - 0.032 ? 23000 - 61% - 0.012 - 38%
South Korea ? 49 ? 484 - 71% - 14.5 - 30%
Iceland - 0.3 ? 3 - 85% - 0.09 - 30%
Hong Kong ? 7 ? 6400 - 70% - 1.9 - 27%
Canada ? 33 - 3.3 - 66% - 8 - 24%
USA ? 300 ? 32 - 71% - 66 - 22%
China ? 1322 ? 137 - 16% - 63 - 5%

So what does all this tell us? The tiny nation of Monaco has the highest percentage of broadband adopters, beating the US 38% to 22%. However, they also have a tiny population of 32,000 people, crammed into a space less than one square mile! It?s hardly a big achievement to wire 12,000 people. In second place are Iceland and South Korea, tied at 30%. But Iceland only has 300k people, so again, wiring 90,000 people isn?t that big a deal in my opinion. Plus, their average advertised speed is half that of the US.

Now South Korea is a different story. They have 49 million people, and are tied with the US in percentage of homes that have internet access. Over 14 million people with broadband is an achievement, and their speed is remarkable. However, they have a population density 15 times higher than the US! That means a lot more people living in cities and apartment blocks, making the wiring process much easier.

The country closest to our density is China, which is still four times higher, and they only have a broadband penetration of 5%.

The one country I think we should really be applauding is Canada. They have a tenth as many people, with a tenth the density, making their distribution similar to ours. However, with a lower percentage of homes having internet access, they still beat us in the percent of those with broadband.

I know you can?t read this whole email on the air, but I think you should take a stand against the ?common wisdom? and summarize the facts for your audience.

The US has 66 MILLION broadband users, more than any other country in the world and they are spread out over more land than the top four countries combined. The next closest country, South Korea, has less than a quarter as many broadband subscribers, and they are crammed into 1/15th the area, making wiring much easier.

I?m not saying the US shouldn?t be working to improve, but geeze, lay off a bit. These comparisons to other countries seem specious to me.

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by chrisemcleod / February 7, 2008 12:30 AM PST

I'm SO glad someone posted this. I've always thought that exact same thing whenever I heard anyone mention this.

Nicely laid out statistics too. Thanks!

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by shawnlin / February 7, 2008 1:15 AM PST
In reply to: AWESOME POST

thanks for giving more *context* about what the numbers mean and what they don't. I've been wondering for a while about these statistics and am well aware of the "lies, damn lies, and statistics" line.

I guess it's ultimately and issue of user satisfaction...


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Even more lies, damn lies and statistics
by hosko / February 7, 2008 12:17 PM PST

Saying that the USA has 66 million broadband users, which is the most in the world would be a great statistic if every country in the world had the same amount of people. Countries have different sizes thats why the OECD for their broadband figures use Broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants. This way the overall percentage is fair between larger and smaller countries. So the USA has 66 million people with broadband but they also have 235 million people without broadband, which throws a spanner in that argument.

Here are the top 15 countries for broadband connections per 100 inhabitants as of June 2007:

Rank Country Percentage Total Subscribers

1 Denmark 34.3 1 866 306

2 Netherlands 33.5 5 470 000

3 Switzerland 30.7 2 322 577

4 Korea 29.9 14 441 687

5 Norway 29.8 1 388 047

6 Iceland 29.8 90 622

7 Finland 28.8 1 518 900

8 Sweden 28.6 2 596 000

9 Canada 25 8 142 320

10 Belgium 23.8 2 512 884

11 United Kingdom 23.7 14 361 816

12 Australia 22.7 4 700 200

13 France 22.5 14 250 000

14 Luxembourg 22.2 105 134

15 United States 22.1 66 213 257

Another point you raise is population density, this is a rather useless statistic because it measures the total population and divides it by the total area of the country. This is great for countries that have an even spread of people across the entire country but most large countries aren't like that. Take Australia for instance, over 90% of their population lives in urban cities spread out on the coastline, the with very little people living inland. Because Australia is such a large country it throws the population density out completely.

The Population density of Australia is 2.7 per km, compare that to the USA's 32 and they still have a higher proportion of users on broadband. However Australia's largest city, Sydney has a population of 4,297,100 (which is 21% of the entire population of Australia) has a population density of 345.7 per km. Its for this very reason the population density shouldn't be used for this function. A far better method is Broadband penetration landmass occupied by 50% of the population.

What should also be looked at in this debate is the growth of broadband penetration. In Q2 2007 the USA had a growth of 1.86% over Q4 2006, this is well down the list. In the same period Germany had growth of 4.11%, Australia 3.67%, Ireland 3.19%, New Zealand 2.59% with Sweden and Denmark both on 2.54%

Sure statistics can be picked out that support any side of an argument, but for a post title lies, damn lies and statistics I feel that you are just as guilty.

I also feel its really important to include any source when discussing statistics, mine were all from

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Correction of growth figuers
by hosko / February 7, 2008 2:21 PM PST

I said in my previous post that: "What should also be looked at in this debate is the growth of broadband penetration. In Q2 2007 the USA had a growth of 1.86% over Q4 2006, this is well down the list. In the same period Germany had growth of 4.11%, Australia 3.67%, Ireland 3.19%, New Zealand 2.59% with Sweden and Denmark both on 2.54%"

My maths proved to be not that flash, the OECD average for broadband penetration growth was 10.74% over the period Q2 2007 to Q4 2006. Here is a list of countries and their penetration growth of broadband over the period

Greece 53.71%
Turkey 35.84%
Slovak Republic 34.42%
Mexico 28.87%
Ireland 26.23%
Germany 24.04%
Australia 19.32%
New Zealand 18.65%
Hungary 16.04%
Czech Republic 15.25%
Poland 15.15%
Luxembourg 12.79%
Spain 12.46%
France 12.05%
Italy 10.90%
OECD 10.74%
United Kingdom 10.53%
Sweden 09.77%
United States 09.20%

What this shows is the USA's broadband penetration growth is lower then the average for member countries of the OECD. What this means is that USA will slip further down the list.

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Statistics, responses, etc.
by Philomorph / February 8, 2008 1:43 AM PST

I was a bit rushed in my initial post, so I didn't cite my sources. I'll correct that here. I gathered numbers from a variety of places, some of which were current and some which were 6 months or so out of date. Here are the sites I used:

Tom, thanks for reading my post on the show! As a first time poster, long time listener, it?s cool to be featured. FYI ? my handle is pronounced ?fie-lo-morph? (with a long i), not ?fill-o-morph?. No worries, it?s an honest mistake.

Hosko raises some good points, showing that one?s point of view matters in this debate. In a really large area like the US, China, or Australia, density can be misleading. I really only meant to use it as an additional indicator to show that the picture isn't as simple as often portrayed.

Speaking of sources and numbers, here are two interesting tidbits from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (

47% of all adult Americans have a broadband connection at home as of early 2007
70% of individuals who use the internet at home have a broadband connection

So why is this number so much higher than the other ones? I suspect it?s because of the word ?Adult?. You can draw various conclusions from this, but I won?t go into them here. Suffice it to say that again statistics prove to be complex.

For Tom?s question regarding individual states, let?s look at California just as an example:

Per Wikipedia:
Population - 37.7M
Density - 90.27/km^2

According to the California Broadband Task Force, 96% of California residences have access to broadband.
According to the 2007 Pew Internet and American Life Report, adoption rates (by area type):

Urban: 52%
Suburban: 49%
Rural: 31%

So compared to South Korea, with one fifth the population density, CA beats them on every measure but speed. Even the RURAL areas have a higher adoption rate than S.K. does overall. Of all the states, CA is one of the largest and most diverse in population distribution.

Here are some more state related numbers:

Average speeds by state:

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Definition of "Access"?
by milkky / February 8, 2008 7:04 PM PST

I'm surprised by the stat of 96% access in CA. The word "access" could have many interpretations. Do you know how that is being defined? If they're including satellite, then I think that's a different picture. Certainly this podcast says routinely that sat. is not an adequate broadband choice.

And, your "" link seems to be broken.

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Density counts
by spiffytech / February 8, 2008 9:58 AM PST

While you make good points about density and total subscribers being poor measures of a country's broadband penetration, they should not be discounted when considering a country's ranking on a broadband list. As the OP pointed out, it's much easier to wire up a small country where everyone's packed in together than the whole US.
For this reason, I believe that the percentage of a country's population that has broadband is a poor measure of the success that broadband enjoys in that country, but I don't have an alternative measure to propose.

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RE: Density Counts
by hosko / February 9, 2008 7:10 AM PST
In reply to: Density counts

Sure it is easier to wire up a smaller country, but you can't use that as an excuse. Broadband doesn't only mean fibre, it includes cable and ADSL technologies that are very much in use in America.

The USA will just be left behind the rest of the world. The Buzz crew talk about better speeds to access video and the like, but the basic broadband penetration rate is a lot more important. If kids don't have access to broadband at home their education suffers. Once that happens the future of a country in changing world begins to also suffer.

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The discussion continues
by Philomorph / February 9, 2008 8:20 AM PST
In reply to: RE: Density Counts

Hosko, I'd like to know how a child's education suffers without access to broadband. The web didn't exist when I was growing up, and my education didn't suffer, nor did those of my siblings.

Access to vast amounts of good information doesn't require a modem at home if you have a library card, or a library at school, or even an internet connected computer at school. In fact I'd say that currently very little educational benefit is gained over broadband at home. MySpace, YouTube, Hulu, and BitTorrent offer very little to grow your skills or your brain better than simply going to school and paying attention.

Anyway, I'm starting to go off-topic and rant a bit, so I'll bring it back around.

I'm not trying to excuse the US from a lack of broadband. I'm just trying to get people to stop slamming it for not meeting statistics that don't really mean anything in the big picture. It's very hard and very expensive to wire such a large country with so many diverse populations and geography. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the government isn't paying for it like in South Korea.

By the way, according to the New York Times, "Now that most of the nation is online at high speeds, South Koreans are shifting more of their analog lives to their computers, where they watch soap operas, attend virtual test preparation schools, sing karaoke and, most of all, play games."

[/snark on]
Wow, I'm glad they got all that high speed so they can do test prep in between karaoke and rounds of Warcraft. I bet that's raising their test scores more than some crappy old books or CDRoms could.[/snark off]

To another post's question about how they define broadband, I didn't read the report that thoroughly but I think it was in there. I think if they included satellite the number would have been almost 100% since everyone has a view of the sky.

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Broadband and educatiuon
by hosko / February 9, 2008 9:28 AM PST

It take it you haven't been in a school for a very long time. It is very well documented that schools that have adopted widespread computer usage throughout their curriculum's have been getting very good results.

Other countries around the world are working very hard on this very issue, the Australian government is spending billions on fibre-to-the-node for 98% of the population as well as fibre-to-the-premises for every school.

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Broadband and education
by Philomorph / February 9, 2008 9:48 AM PST

Actually I just finished my Bachelor?s degree last year, so I was in school recently and we used computers all the time. But you're right that high school for me was in the days when the Apple 2e was new.

There is a difference between computers in the school and broadband at home. Maybe I am really out of the loop, but I know that my nephews in high school don't have high speed and it hasn't seemed to hamper their education. Are other countries using home-based high-speed internet to enhance school-based education somehow?

Don't get me wrong, high-speed is awesome at home, but I'm just not seeing the educational advantage beyond faster access to wikipedia. Some day I imagine we'll have tele-presence for school so kids can stay home and still participate in a classroom made up of students residing all over the world. But we're not there yet and you can?t blame the lack of high-speed in the US for that.

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US Internet Access
by DanClapp / February 9, 2008 10:03 AM PST

All those statistics are really nice but to quote somebody "you can make a statistic to show any point of view". What really matters is if I have access to the internet. I went to Italy and the hotel internet cost 15 euros per hour, I went to the Super 8 in Virginia and wireless access was free.

Tom you have recently used Iowa (I'm from NJ) as an example of how backwoods internet access can be - well, actually, Iowa is the only state that I have seen free WiFi at every rest stop on the interstate highways. (It came in really handy when I stoped to check in for my plane flight and was able to get an exit row seat).

You also use Starbucks as the zenith of internet access - well, actually, Starbucks charges big bucks for internet access. You should be using Paneria Bread for your examples - free access at every store even in the parking lot (also don't forget the cheap motels of which virtually all have free WiFi that also extends into the parking lot).

So, how does Europe stack up now? Let's give the US credit where credit is due - still the greatest tech country that I've ever travelled (or want to travel) to.

Dan Clapp

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Internet in hotels
by hosko / February 9, 2008 10:14 AM PST
In reply to: US Internet Access

Really you shouldn't use the price of Internet in hotels in working out how expensive Internet is in that country. The Mandalay Bay hotel in Vegas charges $15 or $25 (sorry can't remember which one) for Internet access a day.

Hotels are like shops in airport, they charge ridiculous amounts.

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Re: Satellite
by milkky / February 9, 2008 7:34 PM PST

"To another post's question about how they define broadband, I didn't read the report that thoroughly but I think it was in there. I think if they included satellite the number would have been almost 100% since everyone has a view of the sky."

Actually, your stat was 96%, so that was my point--seemed like they must be including satellite to get so close to 100%. Which could be a bit misleading as it is clear that many do not consider satellite as acceptable broadband--certainly the latency pretty much kills mult-player gaming and VOIP--plus the equipment cost for startup are in the hundreds of $s. Oh yeah, and you probably get a data transfer cap.

Weren't there a past survey where, if any part of a zip code (or was it by area codes?) had 2 providers than they concluded that every one in that zip code had access to competition? There was something like that. Seeing a number like 96% made me wonder whether some sort of similar generalizing or even slanting was going on in that group's stats.

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