Most analyses of the quality and speed of broadband access in the U.S. have been unflattering. Akamai’s Q4 2014 “State of the Internet Report” ranks America 16th in average connection speed, trailing noted Internet leaders like Latvia, and 17th in worldwide broadband adoption, behind Uruguay and Qatar.
Looking at a Larger Picture
Despite that report, there’s one group that says America’s Internet connectivity is much better than it appears. The Media Institute bills itself as a “nonprofit research foundation working to advance sound communications policy, freedom of speech, excellence in journalism, and the protection of intellectual property,” and it recently released “Net Vitality: Identifying the Top-Tier Global Broadband Internet Ecosystem Leaders.” The report’s author, Stuart N. Brotman, is a faculty member at Harvard Law School and, the way he figures it, the U.S. is among the world’s top five nations for overall “net vitality,” as he calls it.
Brotman came to this conclusion after five years of research, compiling more than 50 different sets of data to form a single composite score. Rather than create numbered rankings, he chose to create a top tier of leading nations that “distinguish themselves as pacesetters for future benchmarketing and best practices analyses.” Joining the U.S. in this leadership tier are France, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
It’s Not a Series of Tubes
The Internet’s primary building blocks, according to Brotman, are devices, networks, and applications/content, each of which drive each other in a perpetual cycle. Faster networks encourage better devices, which encourage better content, which requires faster networks. Study’s like Akamai’s, in Brotman’s view, examine only the networks without also examining devices and content.
Brotman further segments each of these building blocks, with countries receiving a score for each. America ranks first in 10 of 17 applications categories, first in three of five device categories, but first in only two of 12 network categories. In an additional measure of macroeconomic factors, the U.S. scores wins in 9 of 18 categories.
What We Can Learn From Other Nations
The report says that, despite the high scores, the U.S. can still learn from the other nations in the top five.
France: The country’s main strength has been fusing the concepts of public service with industry privatization, with government intervention when industry has failed to meet goals such as universal service.
Japan: The government has offered consistent and effective long-term leadership, focusing on cooperation with national industry and competition with neighboring economic powers.
South Korea: The country possesses a culture that favors early adoption of new technologies to solve existing problems, and its government offered direct financial assistance both for network construction and consumer purchases of technology.
United Kingdom: They have a clear, well-defined Internet strategy and goals that focus on long-term improvements.
Each nation has a strong tradition of private innovation, but successful broadband policy “appears to require government involvement,” Brotman says. Encouraging digital literacy, building infrastructure, and offering incentives for private investment are three examples of useful roles government can play.
Our Content and Devices Will Drive Our Networks
While it’s disappointing that yes, the U.S. still scores poorly in measures of network quality, we have all the other elements for broadband success in place. Nations with faster connection speeds still make those connections on hardware and software designed here, and consume content created here. As previously stated, those two factors will drive network performance forward.