Who’s Speedy in the USA?

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Earlier I discussed why Internet speeds are so slow in the USA. But what about within the USA? Not surprisingly, they vary a great deal.

Not only do they vary but how they vary tells us some important things about factors that go beyond monopolies. One good source of information is this article from last year in Gizmodo which breaks the country down by congressional districts and then cross-references that data with income and population density.

This map is from the Gizmodo article.

What can we draw from this map?

One thing pretty clearly are the higher rates in areas of greatest population density. Montana seems to be in a particularly sad place. But this goes to the issue of population density and why countries like Japan, Taiwan and especially South Korea may have an edge that goes beyond competition. They have big populations on relatively small patches of land. That’s also an advantage for a number of the smaller European countries. It’s much more economic to rewire (refiber) when you’ve got more people per square mile. Also just in absolute terms.

TPM Reader RA expands on this point …

This isn’t to sound US-centric or anything – I’m far from a TEAM USA fan – but several factors likely contribute.

A big one – literally – is size. It’s really hard for most people to grasp how much larger the US is than most European or Asian countries. The US is the fourth physically largest country in the world (if we count Greenland as separate from Denmark, which even the speed map does) with huge topographical features – and all the ones who are larger are also slower. Rolling out any kind of infrastructure update is a lot harder. In fact, you have to get all the way down to France – which is 42 on the list by size and about 7% the size of the US – before you hit a country with higher speeds than the US.

Another comparison might be population density, which I suspect probably correlates even higher with speed and would probably hold true looking at individual states within the US: most of the US has a pretty low population density, and unsurprisingly the speeds in the more dense areas (California, Washington, Florida, New England, DC) are higher (13 in Alaska vs 28 in Maryland and 30 in New Jersey, and California – which varies wildly with population density from west to east – in the middle around 22).

Also of note is that the US probably has some of the oldest intact infrastructure; many countries that are listed as higher speeds have either had to rebuild from WWII or subsequent wars or just started modernizing post-WWII.

Certainly, the monopolies play a big part, but these other factors also contribute.

RA followed up a short time later …

I did look at population density vs speed. The only countries that have a higher internet speed but lower population density than the US are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, and Latvia. The other 25 countries with a higher average speed are not only much smaller (as I said in the last email) but also have much higher population densities: South Korea, which you mentioned has roughly 17 times the population density of the US in addition to being only about 1% the size.

It’s worth noting here that the US used to approach this quite differently in the phone era, using regulatory means to make sure the phone service got wired into places where it was only marginally economic – like rural areas.

Still a few other points stand out from the map. One is that if you look at the map every the fastest parts of the country (areas of very high population concentration) only hit around 30 Mbps, which is still way behind the Asian countries with top speeds and a number of countries in Europe. (That said, I just ran the test on my computer here at the TPM office in Lower Manhattan and I got 50.51 Mbps. That’s on a Time Warner Cable business account in any office with about 15 workstations.)

The other point is that very wealthy parts of California where you have high population density and extreme reliance on the tech economy seem to have average-ish numbers. I’m thinking of the LA and SF metro areas.

So there are clearly differentials that don’t match population density.

Finally, TPM Reader AL makes this point about Estonia …

One of the things that a lot of the countries that rank above the US have in common, and a point that I think you missed, is that they made widely available, fast, and affordable Internet access a national priority. Estonia is a particularly interesting case, because they were early adopters of both fast Internet and cyber security. This great article at the Guardian goes into a lot more detail.

Nations that made fast and ubiquitous access a priority and put money behind it like Japan, Estonia, South Korea are the countries that rank above the US. While US Presidents have given lip service to the importance of faster Internet access, all that has usually resulted in is Verizon adding another “service charge” to their bill with no real benefit to the consumer.

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