U.S. Net Access Not All That Speedy

The USA trails other industrialized nations in high-speed Internet access and may never catch up unless quick action is taken by public-policymakers, a report commissioned by the Communications Workers of America warns.

The median U.S. download speed now is 1.97 megabits per second — a fraction of the 61 megabits per second enjoyed by consumers in Japan, says the report released Monday. Other speedy countries include South Korea (median 45 megabits), France (17 megabits) and Canada (7 megabits).

"We have pathetic speeds compared to the rest of the world," CWA President Larry Cohen says. "People don't pay attention to the fact that the country that started the commercial Internet is falling woefully behind."

Speed matters on the Internet. A 10-megabyte file takes about 15 seconds to download with a 5-megabit connection — fast for the USA. Download time with a 545-kilobit connection, about the entry-level speed in many areas: almost 2½ hours.

Broadband speed is a function of network capacity: The more capacity you have, the more speed you can deliver. Speed, in turn, allows more and better Internet applications, such as photo sharing and video streaming. Superfast speeds are imperative for critical applications such as telemedicine.

In recent years, communities also have found that good broadband is essential to draw businesses and jobs.

For all those reasons, Cohen says, it is important for policymakers to act now: "In order to maintain our place in today's global economy — and to create the jobs we need — our government must act."

The CWA report is based on input from 80,000 broadband users (less than 5% of respondents used dial-up). In addition to drawing comparisons with other countries, the report ranks U.S. states on median download speeds. (Upload speeds are also rated.)

The Federal Communications Commission, which has broad sway over the emerging broadband market, defines "high speed" as 200 kilobits per second. The benchmark was adopted more than a dozen years ago when still-slower dial-up was the rule. Cohen says 200 kilobits is not even recognized as broadband in most countries today. "There is nothing speedy about it."

The FCC in April opened a proceeding that could result in the redefinition of what can be advertised as "broadband Internet service" in this country. "We're asking the question if the definition should be changed," spokeswoman Tamara Lipper says. The comment period ended May 31, and a report from the FCC is likely in the fall.

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