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U.S. broadband A-OK

It's hip to fret about the need for a "national broadband policy," but CNET's Declan McCullagh wonders if the U.S. is really doing so badly.

It's become fashionable to fret about the purported need for a "national broadband policy," a concern typically accompanied by laments that the United States lags other nations in adopting speedy Internet connections.

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, recently complained that "the United States is ranked 11th in the world in broadband penetration!...When we find ourselves 11th in the world, something has gone dreadfully wrong. When Congress tells us to take immediate action to accelerate deployment, we have an obligation to do it."

One commentary piece published on CNET last week worried that the United States is "falling behind" other countries in broadband connectivity. Another from last year offered "several recommendations that could help form a national broadband agenda" and touted South Korea as a "success" story.

But is the United States truly faring so poorly? A careful look at the numbers gives reason to be skeptical.

The now-traditional source of dismay about U.S. broadband adoption is a set of figures compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a kind of governmental think tank. The June 2004 figures say the United States has 11.2 broadband subscribers for every 100 inhabitants, in 11th place and far behind South Korea's 24.4-people-per-100 top ranking.

Those figures are misleading. South Korea is roughly 100,000 square kilometers, about the size of the state of Indiana, with a population clustered around large cities like Seoul. In those cities, Koreans tend to live in high-rise apartment buildings. Population density makes it relatively easy to provide high-speed connections--it's perfect for speedy VDSL lines--and boosts the nation in the OECD's rankings.

By contrast, the United States sprawls over nearly 10 million square kilometers--100 times the size of South Korea--with a population more evenly distributed between rural areas, towns and cities and far more likely to live in single-family homes. Geography and demographics explain why broadband will take longer to become available in the United States. Copps might as well complain that the more spread-out United States has fewer subway lines per capita and less smog too.

To be sure, complaints about U.S. lagging refer both to slow adoption of broadband and the slower broadband speeds available. It's true that South Korea and Japan may offer connections measured in the tens of megabits, but fiber connections are finally happening in the United States. By the way, if you've got complaints about the rollout speed, the best way to accelerate it would be to eliminate wacky government regulations stemming from the 1996 Telecommunications Act--not add to the confusion with new ones.

It's not just South Korea. All the nations that the OECD ranks above the United States are either much smaller (Netherlands) or happen to have people clustered around large cities that can be wired more easily than rural areas (Sweden, Norway).

Canada, in third place, falls into the second category. Nearly everyone chooses to live close to cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa along the not-quite-as-cold southern border. A Canadian province bordering Greenland called Nunavut is larger than Alaska, but its entire population would fit in a football stadium with room to spare.

"We're not doing a bad job"
"These numbers that the OECD throws around and (that) keep getting used are a convenient way to make the U.S. look bad," says Jeff Carlisle, senior deputy chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau. "But if you really look at the numbers, it's hard to say that we're doing a bad job...If you're talking about the broader issue, the U.S. comes out looking pretty good."

Carlisle is right. FCC figures released last month show that 94.3 percent of U.S. ZIP codes have high-speed lines available to them through at least one provider as of June 2004. More than 80 percent of ZIP codes have a choice of at least two companies selling broadband links.

In other words, all but a tiny fraction of Americans have the option to pay for a high-speed connection--but not everyone wants to cough up the cash. The OECD figures look at subscribers, not the availability of broadband to potential subscribers who don't want it.

Cultural differences might explain why. Perhaps Americans prefer to read books instead of staring at a PC? Or they'd rather watch television? Online gaming and music downloading aside, there's still no killer app for broadband in the United States. Compare that with South Korea, where you can delivered over the Internet and where online gaming is a national sport.

The OECD information also doesn't reflect broadband connections in workplaces, which are prevalent in the United States. My mother, a teacher in a midsize town in Pennsylvania, vows she won't pay for a speedy Internet link at home because she has one at work. My colleague Marguerite Reardon last year--and they're hardly alone.

All this might be an interesting academic debate--except that the OECD rankings are being used to argue for more government interference ostensibly aimed at signing up more broadband users. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, cited the rankings as "serious warning signs that we are falling behind," and Copps invoked them when urging more aggressive regulation.

Such regulation would be a mistake. In reality, even though broadband connections are readily available--not as available or as fast as in South Korea, true, but still available--Americans don't see the benefits outweighing the costs. Over time, as more-compelling content comes online and connection speeds zoom upward, this will change.

Until then, there's no national emergency that needs to be solved through new laws or more government spending. It's simply a case of bureaucrats and other critics objecting to the way Americans have chosen to spend their own money.