Who is winning the broadband race?

Richard Bennett

The impact of broadband policy models on the quality of the networks that enable us to use the Internet is a background question in many current controversies, such as the FCC’s net neutrality rulemaking. If America’s networks are first-rate, there’s no need to change the way they’re regulated; as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if we’re lagging behind our competitors, we certainly can benefit from a close examination of the factors that have contributed to their success.

Too often, however, enthusiasts simply skim the surface of broadband statistics on speed and price and reach erroneous conclusions. While it certainly is the case that a dozen or so nations score higher than the U.S. on speed tests, it’s not always the case that the gap between the U.S. and the higher-scoring nations is significant; and even if it were, in many cases the higher speeds in other nations are caused by factors that have nothing to do with policy and regulation.

Former Soviet satellite Romania, for example, has brand new fiber optic networks that allow their small Internet user population to achieve higher speed test scores than the U.S. But Romania has higher speed networks because it skipped a generation and went straight from basic broadband to fiber; regardless of their network speeds, Romanians use the Internet much less frequently than Americans and actually gain less benefit from it.

The U.S. was the first nation to deploy advanced LTE mobile networks at scale, but the speeds at which we use them are no longer the fastest in the world; this is largely due to the fact that American mobile providers allow their customers to use LTE without paying extra for the privilege, the common practice in Europe. As Europe and East Asia finally deploy LTE after several years of foot-dragging and regulatory negotiation, U.S. carriers are deploying the LTE Advanced, an even faster and more reliable system.

When we compare the overall quality of America’s networks — measured not only by download speed, but also by coverage, data volume, and the choice of higher speed plans — to our fellow members of the Group of 7 (U.K., Japan, Germany, France, Canada, and Italy) — we do very well indeed. The U.S. has the highest utilization in terms of volume, the second best coverage by higher speed wired networks, the best coverage by higher speed wireless networks, and the second highest preference for high speed wired data plans.

While we’re often told that retail competition over shared network infrastructures is the key to success in broadband, high network speeds do not flow from shared infrastructures. The fastest networks in the G7 outside the U.S. (Japan’s fiber to the home networks built by NTT East and NTT West, U.K.’s cable network built by Virgin Media, and Germany’s advanced cable and VDSL networks built by Deutsche Telekom) are exempt from the line-sharing requirements that net neutrality advocates urge on the FCC. While some of these networks are ostensibly required to open their wires to competitors, the actual terms of sharing make it impractical.

In both Japan and Germany, competitors can only gain access to advanced networks by leasing groups of wires, whether they need them or not. Consequently, incumbent operator NTT E/W provides 71 percent of Japan’s high-speed connections and cable companies exempt from line sharing provide nearly all the high-speed connections in the U.K. and Germany. Germany’s policy for advanced non-cable networks, VDSL, follows a “Contingent Model” similar to Japan’s, in which single-line leases are not offered for advanced networks.

In reality, the nations that have treated broadband networks as public utilities are high on promises and low on results. France and Italy are the truest examples of the utility model for broadband; wired broadband in France is no faster than mobile broadband, and Italy has the slowest networks in the G7.

Overall, broadband users in the U.S., Japan, and Canada have the best services, and those in Germany, France, and Italy have the worst among G7 nations. Careful examination of the data shows that the U.S. is fundamentally on the right track; policymakers are well advised to stay the course.

Richard Bennett is a network inventor and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.