Mar. 31st, 2009 02:15 pm:
America (is/is not) falling behind in broadband. [Circle one.]

Network World recently published an article, "U.S. isn’t falling behind in broadband," in its news section of its LANs & WANs page. The article is written by James Lakely of the Heartland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Chicago.

In it, Lakely argues that spending on improving the nation’s telecommunication infrastructure – specifically the spending in Obama’s stimulus package – isn’t necessary because, contrary to popular belief, America is not falling behind in broadband.

Lakely attacks the methodology used in the OECD’s [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] broadband penetration numbers, and in this he has a point. The U.S. ranked 15th in the world in "broadband penetration" measured by a per capita rate of people who subscribe to broadband services. I too have a problem with using that measurement; broadband subscription rates are not the same as broadband availability rates, and other countries’ cultures might place more emphasis on the value of being online.

My grandmother still refuses to use the Internet for anything other than basic e-mail, and even then it’s pulling teeth.

Lakely, however, criticizes the OECD study due to the old argument that the countries with better broadband have higher population densities. That is the only argument he brings forward which speaks to his thesis rather than tangential information.

And it’s faulty logic – while the U.S. population density (31/km2) compares unfavorably to France’s (113/km2), the population of certain states, like, for example, California, comes closer to France. If the population density theory is true, California’s broadband should rival France, and the technology in New York City should rival that of Tokyo or Seoul. Or perhaps most telling, Finland, at #3 on the list, has a population density of only 16/km2.

As for that tangential information, he points out that the United States has the most consumers of high-speed Internet when talking raw numbers. (We also have a population eight times that of South Korea, six times that of France, and twice that of Japan – in fact, the only countries that have more people are China and India.)

He also mentions new technologies, such as Verizon’s FIOS:

A new study by consulting firm RVA Market Research pegs the annual growth rate of "fiber to the home" networks — the latest, fastest and most competitive broadband technology — at 76% on this side of the pond.
Of course, since we’re just now getting the fiber-optic connections that our counterparts in Japan have had for months or years, our growth rate is bound to be higher.

And finally, Lakely offers this tidbit of "information":
If worry-warts want to get their hard drives heated up over comparisons between the United States and other countries, they can try this one on for size: A survey released this month by the German broadband association Bitkom found 84% of respondents there between the ages of 19 and 29 would rather ditch their spouses than their broadband connections.

Now that's a troubling study. "Catching up" with the rest of the world isn't always such a good idea.
Is Lakely seriously arguing that America’s broadband stagnation leads to healthier marriages? Even so, Lakely’s got his facts wrong: Germany has a divorce rate of 2.3 per 1000 population, the United States has a divorce rate of 3.6 per 1,000 population.

Of course, all of this is completely irrelevant to the real issue – that is, that we shouldn’t be concerned so much with broadband adoption at this point but at broadband performance. We are moving beyond streaming video applications to live video applications – cloud computing has come to gaming, for crying out loud – and this gives technological advantage to those countries who can leverage the technologies behind virtualization and cloud computing because they’ve laid groundwork with infrastructure.

In short, we need not worry about what percentage of Americans have broadband speeds, but rather, how good and how fast is the broadband when they get it? South Korea has an average speed of 15Mbps compared to 3.9Mbps in the U.S. Japan’s fastest broadband service is 150Mbps – for $60 a month.

What irks me about the Heartland Institute making these claims in Network World is not that it’s in any way a reasoned critique of the Obama stimulus infrastructure spending. In other words, this is not an argument that "the free market can solve the problem better than government intervention can." This is an argument that "there is no problem."

That’s frustrating to me because recognizing a problem is the first step to dealing with it. Even free market solutions mean that someone has to be aware that there is a problem in order to capitalize on fixing it.

The Heartland Institute has been involved in other, similar campaigns where they argue that problems that are publically perceived as problems are not, in fact, problems at all. Before 2005, the Heartland Institute had a number of funding organizations which may have resulted in a conflict of interest, as of 2005, the Heartland Institute insists on secrecy for funding sources.

Feeling: [mood icon] accomplished

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