WASHINGTON -- There's been a lot of debate about whether the United States is falling behind the rest of the world on broadband speeds. Upgrading to the latest networking technology is essential for a faster Internet in the long run. But a country's average speed is also affected by another factor: affordability. A high-speed plan will do nothing for you if its price is out of your reach. And as new research shows, Americans are still paying through the nose for what residents in some cities overseas get at a substantially lower rate.
In New York, for example, you can buy a 500 Mbps (megabits per second) connection that's 58 times faster than the U.S. average. Here's the catch: It'll cost you $300 a month, according to the New America Foundation's new "Cost of Connectivity" report. In Amsterdam, however, the same connection can be had for around $86.
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The same discrepancies hold when you move down the speed ladder, New America's Nick Russo said.
"People may be opting for similar speeds -- and that may be what the average speed is -- but they're often paying more for it in the United States," he said.
For the report, the foundation surveyed options found in 24 cities around the world where high Internet speeds are available. Because many cities have more than one Internet service provider, more than 70 packages were ranked.
In Seoul, a triple play package for phone, TV and Internet at speeds of 100 Mbps for both uploads and downloads will run you $35 a month. By contrast, Verizon will charge New Yorkers $70 a month for a triple play package with Internet at 15 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up on its FiOS service. Verizon's Internet is both costlier and slower.
The rest of the report goes on to highlight other inequities, and at 14 pages, the whole thing is worth a read. But one additional point worth mentioning is that all of the top-performing American cities in the study are those where public utilities are out-competing incumbent commercial Internet service providers. Remember Verizon's $300 for 500 Mbps plan? In Bristol, Va., the city's publicly operated fiber-optic network -- BVU -- gives you twice as much speed for just $19 more. Chattanooga, Tenn., offers an even more attractive deal: the same speeds as Bristol (1 Gbps, or 1,000 Mbps), but for $70 a month.
Part of the advantage these cities enjoy, said Harold DePriest, chief executive of Chattanooga's public utility, EPB, is that they can make a financial choice to build expensive fiber-optic networks -- and once it's in place, they no longer have to play by the same rules as their copper-wired commercial rivals. That's because the technology behind fiber-optic networks is much more scalable.
"We're pricing this and selling it like our competitors," said DePriest, "but they have constraints on bandwidth that we don't have. Our strategic advantage is that we have unlimited bandwidth."
Critics of municipal fiber say taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for huge networks that Verizon and AT&T have balked at building. Brent Skorup, a tech policy researcher at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, says other governmental incentives may also help make municipal fiber -- and many of the foreign offerings -- more affordable to the average consumer. If that's the case, then the question about U.S. Internet being so expensive becomes a tax policy issue rather than one about technology or competitiveness.
Still, how a city chooses to finance a fiber-optic project differs from place to place. Chattanooga, for example, went with bonds rather than new taxes. Besides, since Internet service providers can justify higher prices when networks are more congested, Americans still wind up paying a premium for Web access -- they just hand the money to the cable company, not to the city.
Making international comparisons can be dicey. But there's good evidence here that affordability, not absolute speeds, are worth our attention.