The good news: the world’s broadband networks continue to get faster as fiber optic broadband gets cheaper to deploy. The bad news: the U.S. continues its mediocre showing in most broadband metrics thanks to limited competition and terrible government policy.
According to the latest data from Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, worldwide mobile and fixed download speeds jumped 59.5 and 32 percent respectively since last year.
That progress was slightly less rosy in the United States, which not only fails to rank in the top 10 fastest nations, but often falls behind countries like Kuwait, Bulgaria, and Moldova in wireless and wired broadband speeds.
When it comes to wireless broadband, the U.S ranks 14th, up four spots from last year. While an improvement, studies from OpenSignal have also shown that—despite the sometimes ridiculous hype surrounding 5G—U.S. 4G and 5G networks are dramatically slower than a long list of other countries, including Canada, Italy, and Saudi Arabia.
Things aren’t much better on the wired broadband front, where the U.S. fell two spots to fourteenth, right behind Moldova. Ookla Senior Program Manager Garrett Snyder told Motherboard that the U.S.’ poor showing is due in part to limited infrastructure improvements and geography.
"For fixed broadband, the U.S. hasn’t made improvements to broadband infrastructure and consumer level technology offerings to make it into the top 10 list for 2021,” he said. “An example of this is other markets being more aggressive on fiber deployments. Additionally, some of the other markets likely have more population-dense geographies to cover, which makes it harder for the U.S to have a positive country-level impact on performance."
But Ernesto Falcon, a telecom expert at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard that the poor U.S. showing is also thanks to U.S. government policies that have prioritized weakening telecom regulators over pushing for uniform, affordable fiber deployment.
“No one should be surprised if the U.S. starts getting eclipsed by countries like China, which has gone all in on universal fiber for years now,” he said. “Until we start adopting 21st century metrics in our infrastructure policies and promote their deployment, rather than defer to slow, expensive legacy networks, we’ll be seeing more and more of this trend.”
Up to 42 million Americans lack access to broadband despite decades of heavy industry subsidies. Another 83 million are stuck under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast), resulting in slow, spotty service. Millions more Americans are stuck on aging DSL lines the nation’s phone companies often refuse to repair or upgrade.
Despite billions in tax breaks and regulatory favors, large ISPs often abandon upgrading rural broadband networks because it’s not profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street’s liking. Last year, AT&T announced it would stop selling DSL entirely, yet the company has been repeatedly accused of refusing to upgrade minority and low-income neighborhoods to fiber.
While this contributes to America’s consistently average broadband rankings, Dana Floberg, a telecom expert at consumer group Free Press, told Motherboard online speed tests don’t always provide an accurate picture of network performance. In part because many people only conduct such tests when they’re having connection issues.
“A slow speedtest could be the result of aging DSL lines, certainly, but it could also be the result of testers subscribing to speed tiers that are slower than the fastest offering (perhaps because the faster offerings are too expensive), or performing the test on the opposite side of their homes from their Wi-Fi routers,” she said.
But Floberg added that the continued obsession with broadband speeds often obscures a more important topic: broadband prices. U.S. consumers pay some of the highest broadband prices in the developed world for wireless and wired broadband thanks to regional monopolization, regulatory corruption, rampant telecom consolidation, and limited competition.
“Broadband prices are on the rise—a fact that some providers and their lobbyists try to conceal by claiming that the ‘value’ is increasing as speeds increase,” Floberg said. “But a family already struggling to afford a $20 per month entry tier won't see much increased value from their bill increasing to an untenable $30 per month, even if the speed of service doubles.”
While the U.S. has taken some steps to help struggling Americans afford broadband during the Covid crisis—such as a $50 “Emergency Broadband Benefit” doled out to low income families—U.S. policymakers still haven’t truly taken aim at the regional monopolization that helps create these high prices in the first place.
“If we want to talk about international rankings, it's worth noting that the U.S. ranked 21st out of the 26 countries tracked in both standalone fixed broadband price and in mobile broadband price in the FCC's 2020 Communications Marketplace Report, and that's not a departure—it's the norm,” Floberg said.