Surprise, surprise: U.S. broadband is slow. Really slow.

Posted by Christian Zibreg

Chicago (IL) – U.S. broadband speeds are the focus of a recently conducted study by Communications Workers of America (CWA) union and the results are not especially flattering for broadband service providers on these shores. The U.S. comes in 15th on a worldwide scale, far behind the leaders Japan, South Korea and Finland.

The CWA published the results of its first Speed Matters report in an attempt to get Congress to come up with an improved telecommunications policy. CWA claims that it represents more than 700,000 people in the telecommunications, media, public sector, manufacturing, health care and airline industries. The results of its study are based so-called last-mile connection data of 229,494 U.S. users who took the online speed test between May 2007 and May 2008. The connection speed was determined by sending a request from participant's computer to CWA's nearest server to record the time it takes to receive a response. The results have to be taken with a grain of salt, but still provide a good indication of nation's state of the broadband infrastructure. That said, the results are staggering.

According to the CWA report (PDF download), the U.S. have not made significant improvements in deploying high-speed broadband networks in the past year. Most participants had DSL or cable modem connections, with 15% of the US population still using a dial-up connection. The median download speed in the country is 2.3 Mb/s, up 0.4 Mb/s over the past year. In terms of broadband penetration, the United States trail other industrial nations, ranking 15th in terms of the percentage of residents who access to a broadband Internet connection.

"This isn't about how fast someone can download a full-length movie," said CWA president Larry Cohen. "Speed matters to our economy and our ability to remain competitive in a global marketplace. Rural development, telemedicine, and distance learning all rely on truly high-speed, universal networks."

Reality check #1: U.S. vs. the rest of the world

You may remember AT&T’s broadband commercial that compare the system’s performance to a supercar. Or Comcast’s current speedracer vs. turtle commercials. These commercials, of course only work in the U.S., if we consider the download speeds generally available on these shores.

A file that takes four minutes to download in South Korea would take nearly an hour and a half to download in the U.S. using the average bandwidth. Japanese users leaves U.S. users behind with an eye-popping 63.60 Mb/s download link. This means that Japanese can download an entire movie in just two minutes, as opposed to two hours or more here in the U.S. Just in case you are wondering: No, Japanese users do not pay more for their broadband connections. In fact, U.S. broadband cost is among the highest in the world.

Japan dominates international broadband speed with a median download speed of approximately 63 Mb/s, more than enough to stream DVD-quality video with surround audio in real time. Next on the list is South Korea where download speeds achieve an average of 49.50 Mb/s. Finland and France follow with 21.70 Mb/s and 17.60 Mb/s, respectively. Canada ranked eighth with an average download speed of 7.60 Mb/s. The U.S. came in 15th with 2.35 Mb/s.

Reality check #2: U.S. states vs. U.S. states

The study results show that U.S. download speeds vary across the nation. Rhode Island is the place to be if you want fast downloads – the average download link came in at 6.8 Mb/s. If you live in Alaska, your speed is 0.8 Mb/s. For comparison, a 25 MB file takes 30 seconds to download in Rhode Island, but four minutes if you connect in Alaska.

States with a significant rural population tend to have the slowest speed, such as Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and North Dakota. Interestingly enough, a total of 24 U.S. states dropped in the ranking  compared to the last year - Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Vermont. Users in these states experienced slower average download speeds this year than in 2007.

We have been writing for quite a while about the problem of stagnating download speeds of U.S. broadband services and the potential problems that are developing out of this scenario. While providers such as Time Warner Cable, AT&T or Comcast are trying to squeeze more customers in their antiquated networks and are more focused on topics such as speed throttling rather than improving their infrastructure, other nations are slowly but surely running away with greater bandwidths that are likely to enable new services and new business opportunities.