America’s Slow Speeds

Even with all the recent activity, the United States lags far behind other countries.

U.S. speeds ranked 25th fastest in the world in a Pando Networks study, based on 27 million downloads from January through June 2011. South Korea tops the list, with speeds far exceeding most developed nations.

Similar tests, compiled by broadband company Ookla and Speedtest.net, currently show the U.S. ranks 33rd, with average speeds less than half that of Lithuania, South Korea and Latvia.

The FCC reported in May that broadband was not being deployed in a “reasonable and timely” manner in its annual broadband progress report.

Part of the finding was swayed by the FCC’s evolving definition of what constitutes broadband service. The current standard, last revised in 2010, denotes broadband as connections enabling 4 megabit-per-second downloads and 1 megabit-per-second uploads. Internet providers, though, typically offer much faster speeds to most of their customers.

To accelerate deployment, the FCC announced plans in November reforming subsidy programs and establishing the new Connect America Fund, capped at $4.5 billion per year. The reforms include updated requirements for participating telecoms that promote both broadband and phone service in areas with limited or no availability.

But not everyone is satisfied with the new rules.

Former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan criticized the FCC order in an editorial in Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, writing the plan does not guarantee high-speed connections for all rural Americans. With telecoms not required to support and expand networks in rural areas, investment and new construction projects could dry up, Dorgan wrote.

The Poverty Divide

The rural-urban divide isn’t the only factor determining broadband access. Multiple studies have also correlated speeds and availability with income levels.

A 2011 Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies report examined broadband availability in South Carolina, Los Angeles and Chicago. Researchers found residents living in high poverty areas were served with fewer Internet providers.

Residents of poor communities are typically limited to one or two providers, said Nicol Turner-Lee, vice president and director of Media and Technology Institute for the center. The study didn’t assess cost. But it’s not unrealistic to assume less competition results in higher prices and slower speeds.

“If you don’t have a lot of competition, the likelihood of getting a FiOS connection is slim,” said Turner-Lee, who co-authored the study.

For some low income residents living in wired communities, broadband isn’t affordable. Provider fees, which vary for different areas, often deter low income families from plugging in.

The U.S. Commerce Department reports that income and education are “strongly associated” with broadband adoption. Residents in nearly seven out of 10 U.S. households connected to the Internet in 2009, according to the most recent Census Bureau survey estimates.

Without Internet access, Turner-Lee said it’s more difficult for poorer families to break the cycle of poverty.

“We have to find ways to ensure that nobody is left behind because of availability and affordability,” she said.

This story originally was published on Governing.com.