Internet speeds vary across USA, leaving a 'digital divide'

The average Internet download speed in the USA is 5.1 megabits per second, though consumers' online experiences can vary dramatically, depending on where they happen to live, a new report from the Communications Workers of America says.

On balance, speeds in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were faster. Speeds in the South and in rural areas were markedly slower, according to the CWA's report — "Speed Matters" — out Tuesday.

Delaware, for example, averages 9.9 megabits per second. That's almost double the national average and triple the speed of Idaho (2.6 mbps), Arkansas (3.1) and Alaska (2.3). Data are based on feedback from more than 413,000 Internet users who took an online test between May 2008 and May 2009, CWA says.

The big swing owes to the way broadband is deployed. In the U.S., it's basically up to individual companies to decide where to offer broadband. Big broadband players such as Verizon have tended to focus on densely populated areas, where they can get more subscribers.

CWA says such disparities hurt consumers, and hurt bigger national aims. Uneven efforts by carriers and government "have left a digital divide across the country," says Larry Cohen, CWA president. CWA represents workers at AT&T, Verizon and other telecoms.

In comparison with other countries, the USA does poorly.

South Korea, which currently claims some of the fastest broadband speeds, averages 20.4 megabits per second, CWA says, citing the data of Speedtest.net, which tracks global speeds.

The same movie that takes two minutes to download in South Korea can take two hours in the USA, CWA noted.

Other top performers in global broadband include Japan (15.8) and Sweden (12.8).

By Speedtest's measure, the USA scored slightly better than it did in the CWA test — 6.8 mbps per second, on average. But the USA still finished dead last among the 29 countries it tracks. Latvia (12.4), Portugal (7.97) and Liechtenstein (6.9) all fared better.

CWA says results — both domestically and internationally — underscore what the Obama administration has been saying for months, that the USA needs a cohesive broadband policy.

The Federal Communications Commission is developing a national broadband strategy, and the Commerce Department is about to dole out $7 billion to help spur broadband projects.

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