Is the U.S. driving in the internet slow lane?


How’s the internet speed where you’re working? There can be multiple answers, since people can work in an office, their own homes, or in a public space such as a coffee shop or hotel.

But by far the most common response to that question is, “Not fast enough!” Sure, maybe it’s never fast enough for some people, but in the U.S. in particular, slow broadband speeds are a common nuisance that can both hamper professional and personal productivity and put a damper on online recreational activities such as streaming multimedia.

An analysis last year of broadband speeds in 200 countries around the world ranks the U.S. barely in the top 10 percent, at No. 20, just behind Hong Kong and just ahead of Slovakia and Madagascar. Sobering, is it not?

The U.S. averages 25.86 megabits per second (mps). Here are the top 10 countries and their average mps, to put the U.S. performance in sorry perspective:

  1. Singapore — 60.39
  2. Sweden — 46.00
  3. Denmark — 43.99
  4. Norway — 40.12
  5. Romania — 38.60
  6. Belgium — 36.71
  7. The Netherlands — 35.95
  8. Luxembourg — 35.14
  9. Hungary — 34.01
  10. Switzerland — 29.92

Why does the U.S. lag so far behind these other countries in broadband speed? Numerous books, reports, articles, and blog posts have been written about this, but basically it comes down to a lack of competition in the broadband industry (which also explains why broadband prices in the U.S. are so high) and lagging investment in the country’s inadequate broadband infrastructure.

This comes with an opportunity cost and a competitive cost. A study on the impact of broadband penetration on economic growth of OECD countries from 1996-2007 concluded that “a 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration raised annual per capita growth by 0.9–1.5 percentage points.”

There’s no mystery why. When high-speed internet is available, businesses can offer more services and respond more quickly to customer needs. In turn, consumers can more easily find digital information and services, increasing the chances that they’ll consummate a transaction.

Sure, 5G might help mitigate the broadband data-speed deficit, and supposedly 5G will become widely available by 2020. But it’s 2019 and this next-generation mobile wireless technology only is being used in a handful of U.S. cities right now, so don’t expect 5G ubiquity in the U.S. by next year or even the year after. It’s just not realistic. Telcos still need to upgrade their wireless infrastructures, while fiber networks need to be upgraded and expanded to provide the backbone needed for true 5G performance.

If success in the digital era requires speed, agility, and scalability, U.S. businesses and enterprise workers are being hamstrung by inadequate broadband. The U.S. government and broadband providers both must do more to give American businesses and workers a digital infrastructure that helps them, rather than holding them back. It’s hard to win the digital transformation race when you’re driving in the slow lane.

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