How does US broadband rank? Depends what you measure.

I read an interesting report today. It’s a rebuttal to reports (such as Akamai) that show that the US is not a leader in broadband. It’s an interesting look at different ways to measure broadband expansion – or as they put it health. (The report is Internet traffic as a basic measure of broadband health by Bret Swenson.) I think Swenson’s report focuses on judging whether we’re deep enough; Akamai may be judging how wide we are. Both reports have merit.

I’ll dive deeper into it but on a high level I think the report, especially compared with others, demonstrates that there are almost two inherent industries that involve broadband. There’s broadband where there’s a market case (deep) and there’s broadband where there isn’t (wide). Swenson’s report demonstrates that the US does well where there’s a market case and he seems to dismiss the areas where there isn’t a market case by saying…

Do the traffic figures obscure the fact that some pockets of America do not enjoy quality broadband? I don’t think so. Some people in some localities simply do not enjoy access to the fastest networks. This is true, however, for any geographically diverse nation or region. The per user and per capita traffic comparison does show that despite all of America’s challenges, broadband still excels.

The trouble with broadband (in terms of comparison and policy) is that deep and wide are completely different; both are important but supporting each seems to require different courses of action

Back to the report, Swenson sets out to measure Internet traffic per capita and per user. He gets his stats from Cisco, CIA Factbook and Live Stats…

To compare and contrast among nations and regions, I used Internet traffic estimates from the June 2014 edition of the widely cited Cisco Visual Networking Index, population data from the July 2014 update of the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, and Internet user data from Internet Live Stats,17 which compiles its estimates using data from the ITU and national and regional authorities.


Using that data, the US shines at number two. The report also looks at consumer Internet traffic (per capita and per user) the ranking results are the same. Here are the specifics…

The US world share of consumer Internet traffic, at 31.5 percent, is actually higher than its share of total traffic. Per capita consumer traffic is 49.8 gigabytes per month (see figure 3), and consumer traffic per Internet user is 56.7 gigabytes per month (see figure 4). This is 7.6 times the global per capita average and 3.2 times the global per user average. It is 2.3 times Japan’s per user consumer traffic and 2.7 times that of Western Europe (see table 1).

What I think this indicates is that the US has some great power users – both in industry and consumers. Swenson dismisses that idea, but to the detriment of his own merit I think…

Some might argue that a small portion of a nation’s users could generate enough traffic to skew global comparisons. It is true that some power users generate disproportionate shares of traffic. But every developed nation has power users, and other evidence shows why they alone do not account for the disparity.

I’d maintain that the US has a lion’s share of power users because we are innovative and entrepreneurial, which helps us produce companies like Google and YouTube sensations such as Rebecca Black. (Sort of the best and worst of America’s entrepreneurialism there.) I’ve heard many broadband providers say – show us the business who will pay for broadband and we’ll get it to them. The key is “who will pay.” US broadband expansion will go deep when there’s a market case to be made. We have policies in place that support broadband expansion as a business tool and it’s working! That’s a good thing.

The problem is going wide. Going wide is providing service in areas where no one can pay or at least they can’t pay enough to merit a business case. That’s where the Akamai results are useful. For example the US is not coming up when they look at “percentage of users with better than 4 Mbps connectivity.”

That means that there is a sub-sect of the US with hindered innovation (as far as technology goes) but that group also suffers with limited educational access, healthcare use and access to government services. Suddenly broadband isn’t just a business tool; it’s a utility. Suddenly from a policy perspective we need to look at more than a commercial business case scenario for providing service – but what is the cost to tax payers (in terms of making resources available offline to the disconnected), to quality of life and to civic engagement to not provide service. The policy implications to support a utility is very different than supporting a commercial business tool.

But as I said – both views are important. We do need to look at all sides – and we need find a way to support what we’re doing well (deep) as well as support areas where we need better expansion (wide). When we’re able to do that we can be leaders on all of the lists! More importantly we can all reap the benefits.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Research, Rural, Vendors by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (, hosts a radio show on MN music (, supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota ( and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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