As in sports and business, competition is often a good motivator for national broadband performance. Increasingly, nations seek to have the bragging rights about which has the best broadband networks.
The latest foray into this contest comes from the European Commission. A spokeswoman for EU Commissioner Viviane Reding recently stated that the EU has regained a lead of 3 percentage points over the United States, with 23 percent of European homes and businesses using fixed-line broadband, compared with 20 percent in the U.S.
Reding stated that the European Union has re-established its lead, not only over the U.S. in broadband, but among all nations, making it "the world leader in broadband Internet.”
Really? If only saying it made it so.
But in fact, when looking not just at broadband adoption, but also at speed and quality, the United States actually outstrips the EU; and Korea and Japan outstrip both of them.
In a recent report, our organization
looked at 16 different factors, including broadband. To measure broadband we measured both adoption rates and broadband quality, as measured by upload and download speed with degree of latency (the delay time between delivery of data packets).
When this broader measure of broadband is used, the United States ranks in the middle of the pack in broadband among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) . But it leads the EU-15, albeit by a small degree, and the broader EU-25 by even more (a score of 3.0 vs 2.5).
To be sure, these scores mask considerable differences within the EU, with the Nordic nations significantly ahead of the U.S. and even farther ahead of the rest of the EU-15. But other EU nations, including Spain, Italy, Ireland, and the U.K., lag behind the United States. And the EU-10 nations are significantly behind the U.S., scoring about one-third the level.
One reason why the United States scores higher is that it the quality of its broadband networks is higher. Networks in the U.S. tend to have less difficulty with latency than in Europe.
Where the EU is doing well is in its rate of progress. The EU-15 has progressed more than twice as fast than the U.S., in large part because the U.S. was even further ahead in 2002.
Notably, the EU-10 nations made progress much faster than the EU-15 and the U.S. in large part because they were starting from a low base.
Notwithstanding what the EU Commissioner says, the EU-15 (and the United States) rank behind Japan and South Korea in broadband, with these nations scoring between 120 percent and 42 percent higher, respectively, than the U.S.
Japan and South Korea ranked first and third, respectively, partially because of their large urban populations living in dense cities where it is cheaper to connect multiple users to fiber optic cable. That being said, it would be too deterministic to claim that Japan and South Korea’s leadership is simply a product of geographic coincidence. Over 90 percent of South Korean households subscribe to broadband; and in Japan, approximately 80 percent of homes have fiber-to-the-home connections.
Competition among nations for the best digital economy and society is good, but it is critical to get the facts right and to understand the reasons why countries are ahead or behind.
— Robert D. Atkinson is President and Founder of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.