America's internet speeds are far from the best in the world. Much of Asia and Europe enjoy much faster—and in many cases cheaper—internet than we do. Including Romania.
But while it is easy to understand why Japan and South Korea are front-runners in global internet speed, Romania is a bit more befuddling. How can a country that didn't even have democracy until the early-90s routinely kick our and everyone else's butts when it comes to internet speed? It turns out a uniquely Romanian phenomenon has enabled the Eastern European nation to obtain some of the fastest internet in the world.
Last week, the FCC voted to define broadband internet as having a minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second, up from the previous minimum of 4 mbps. This vote followed a report from the FCC that found access to high-speed internet still isn't up to snuff, especially in rural areas, when compared to the rest of the world.
The US's peak connection speeds average at 48.8 mbps, making it the 17th fastest internet in the world, according to the latest State of the Internet report from Akamai. Some rural areas of the US have connection speeds of 7.3 mbps or slower. Meanwhile, Romania's peak speeds sit around 58.7 mbps, the fastest internet in Europe, and the sixth-fastest in the world.
When you consider download rates, Romania's speedy internet looks even more impressive compared to the US. NetIndex, an online catalog of internet speeds from US company Ookla, uses software to regularly test download speeds around the world. It found the average download speed in the US to be 28.9 mbps, while Romania enjoys 60 mbps:
There are a few reasons why Romania's internet speeds rival those in Japan and South Korea, while making the rest of Europe and North America seem slow in comparison. For one, there are a lot fewer people online in Romania. The internet penetration rate is just 50 percent in Romania, according to the International Telecommunications Union (the UN's information and communications agency), while the US penetration rate is more than 80 percent. And since Romania has a population of about 19 million and a land mass about the size of Oregon, it makes it a lot easier to deliver super high speeds.
But there are other factors in Romania's telecommunications history that have led to its impressive internet speeds, according to the ITU. When the demand for high speed internet started to grow in Romania, Romtelecom (Romania's AT&T) hadn't yet launched. To meet the need, savvy entrepreneurs started to launch neighborhood networks: small, localized operations that only serve a customer base of a few blocks.
At first, these were just local area networks so neighbors could share music they'd downloaded or play games together. The local network operators started to make more money as more people joined the network, so they decided to use the LANs as a convenient way to sell inexpensive high-speed internet to a specific area, installing overhead internet cables.
"There are now discussions about forcing these operators to put their networks underground, which would have the benefit of removing the fibres from view in many urban areas," reads a case study from the ITU. "However, to date operators have not been forced to put their networks underground on a large scale and Romanians therefore enjoy access to relatively cheap broadband infrastructure in many urban areas."
The ITU report says Romania's fast internet can be largely attributed to this unique phenomenon of neighborhood networks and notes 16 percent of connections have speeds of at least 100 mbps. And it explains why the US hasn't been able to catch up. The neighborhood networks work well in dense urban areas of Romania, but hanging fiber optic cables from the trees in the internet wastelands of America wouldn't make for a very practical solution for our slow internet woes. At least the FCC is on our side.
Correction: In one instance, South Korea and North Korea were flipped in this article. An earlier version also identified Romania as having the second-fastest internet in Europe. It has the fastest internet in Europe.