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Are New Broadband Speeds On the Horizon?

Wed, 08/08/2007 - 12:11pm
Nancy Maas
Editor-in-Chief
Much to my surprise I recently read that the US trails other industrialized nations in high-speed Internet access. According to a report commissioned by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the median download speed in the US is 1.97 Mb/s — compared to Japan at 61 Mbps, South Korea at 45 Mb/s, France a 17 Mbps and Canada at 7 Mb/s, just to mention a few. Rhode Island leads the country with a median download speed of 5.011 Mb/s. (These stats are based on speed tests results for September 2006 through May 2007. Source: CWA).

How did this happen? Are we losing our competitive edge? The nation that started the commercial Internet and continues to create products making possible applications consumers never thought possible a few years ago, is now sorely lagging behind.

As we all know speed matters on the Internet. And super fast speeds are not only expected by users, but are essential for critical applications such as telemedicine and public safety. Communities have realized that good broadband speed attracts businesses and jobs. Our ability to offer high-speed Internet access at the highest rate of data transmission is essential to remain competitive and maintain our position in today’s global economy.

When I read these statistics I felt compelled to dig a little deeper and try to figure out when, and if we fell asleep at the switch while our competitors moved into the "fast lane" of the Internet’s super highway. Not to be misunderstood here, I still think that the US’s broadband communication systems are the best in the world. The services offered to consumers are phenomenal and at a price most people can afford. However, the question of why are we so behind (speed wise) remained in my head.

I’m sure there are several reasons for this situation and far too many to cover in this short piece, but let’s consider a few possibilities. First, let’s start with the current definition of "broadband" service. The FCC defines broadband service as data speeds exceeding 200 Kb/s in at least one direction and advanced broadband as at least 200 Kb/s in both directions (upstream and downstream). This benchmark was adopted more than a dozen years ago when dial-up was more the norm. The organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has defined broadband as 256 Kbits in a least one direction, which is considered the most commonly accepted baseline that is marketed as "broadband" around the world. Clearly, the FCC’s definition of what marks the threshold for high-speed Internet services is outdated, along with their data collection standards for determining broadband market penetration. The FCC currently measures broadband availability by ZIP code, rather than the more specific ZIP + 4.

However, positive changes make be in the making. Due to recent legislation, which unanimously cleared the Senate Commerce Committee, some of these issues will now be addressed. The Broadband Data Improvement Act, providing it passes the Senate and House, would require the FCC to create a new metric for "second-generation broadband" defined as being the minimum speed needed to stream full motion, high-definition video. In addition, it would require broadband providers to report high-speed connections within nine-digit ZIP code areas, providing the FCC and policy makers with the type of accurate data they need to create effective legislation and regulations. I can only hope that lawmakers see the wisdom and need for such legislation and move quickly so that the U.S. can get back into the "fast lane" of Internet traffic.

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