Americans love being the fastest, tallest and biggest at almost anything. What else would explain our fascination with the Guinness World Records? According to this expanding repository of strange, inane accomplishments, we’ve produced the world’s heaviest pumpkin (1,810 pounds), the tallest dog (Giant George, a 43-inch Great Dane) and the fastest person to zip herself inside a suitcase (5.43 seconds).

National pride, indeed.

Sadly average Americans don’t seem to be as aware about records that really matter. In another Guinness entry — fastest Internet connectivity — the U.S. doesn’t come close to No. 1. South Korea leads the world with average broadband speeds above 33 megabits per second (Mbps). The U.S. is lethargic by comparison, at only 5 to 6 Mbps. That’s middle of the pack among industrialized countries.

I concede that we’re disadvantaged by having so much land area. It won’t be easy or cheap to lay fiber-optic cable across the Nevada deserts and Kansas plains. The FCC and other industry analysts have speculated a cost of $300 billion or more for universal coverage that would blanket the U.S. with superfast broadband.

It’s little wonder, then, that some smaller countries are ahead of us. For them, deploying broadband nationwide has been cheaper. (South Korea is slightly smaller than Tennessee.)

Coincidentally a broadband deployment in Tennessee is providing early evidence that such investment can pay off. On my recent visit to Chattanooga, I spoke with civic leaders about the city’s 1 gigabit per second network available to all homes and businesses. What I learned is the topic of this issue’s cover story.

I left feeling that there’s nothing remarkable about Chattanooga’s circumstance that would prevent others from following its lead. What was required was coordinated teamwork and significant upfront investment — a philosophy the rest of the nation finally might be heeding.

This year, Congress and the White House agreed to pump $7 billion into planning and building a nationwide high-speed wireless network for public safety — a system that law enforcement has wanted for years. Also, the FCC is trying to reform the Universal Service Fund (USF), created to ensure basic, affordable phone service for all citizens, so that it would support the buildout of broadband in rural and underserved communities. In this issue, Contributing Writer Emily Montandon details the controversy the FCC’s plan is stirring as the federal government tries to repurpose those USF surcharges that appear on consumers’ phone bills.

All these broadband initiatives are expensive, but they’re necessary if the U.S. wants to maintain standing as a superpower in the world economy, which is being driven more by online commerce. I want to see the U.S. set a world record for most money spent on broadband. It wouldn’t be the sexiest accolade, but it might be the most consequential for our future.

Matt Williams Matt Williams  |  Contributing Writer

Matt Williams was previously the news editor of Govtech.com, and is now a contributor to Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.