Consumers across Europe and Asia are enjoying Internet speeds much greater than U.S. consumers. Why?

Tyler Wells Lynch, Reviewed.com / USA TODAY

August 7, 2013 USA Today - If you've ever used the Internet in Seoul or Stockholm you know that Americans are getting the raw deal when it comes to Internet speeds. As most of Europe and Asia invest in high-speed, high-capacity networks, the U.S. remains mired in a substandard infrastructure that makes connectivity not only slower, but pricier for subscribers.

A recent analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 23rd in a measure of price per second of downloaded content. A separate survey by metrics service Ookla put U.S. download speeds at 28th worldwide.

Just like electrification in the early 20th century, high-speed Internet (or broadband) has become an indispensable part of 21st century life. Yet inadequate connectivity has put the U.S. at a disadvantage compared with places such as Sweden, Korea or Hong Kong, where subscribers enjoy download speeds up to 10 times faster than those offered in high-end plans across most of the U.S. — for half the cost.

To add insult to injury, average subscription prices in the U.S. have increased in recent years, while bandwidth has stagnated. According to OECD figures, the average Comcast subscription price rose more than 60% from 2008 to 2012, while bitrates remained the same.

Why is this? Some experts point to the cost of laying new, high-capacity fiber-optic cables across the entire U.S. But Susan Crawford, professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, blames a lack of competition among Internet service providers (ISPs) — specifically big cable companies.

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"As a result of failures in policy and sweeping consolidation, more than 80% of Americans will have just one choice when it comes to very high-capacity 21st century Internet access," says Crawford, who previously served as a special assistant to the Obama administration for science, technology and innovation policy. "Their only choice will be their local cable monopoly."

With deep pockets, fixed operating costs and territorial dominance, incumbent ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner Cable have little incentive to fund a nationwide fiber-optic upgrade, which Crawford claims could easily support speedy Internet for the next 40 to 50 years. Progress has been slow to come.

But there are some bright spots. Last year, Google Fiber launched a 1Gbps Internet service — 20 times faster than many current "high-speed" plans — for a reasonable $70 per month. It is currently available only in Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., but expansions to Austin and Provo, Utah, are planned next.

Federal grants have also allowed rural ISPs to begin laying fiber, though they will serve relatively small populations. Verizon also offers a fiber service, FiOS, though the fastest plan is only half the speed of Google Fiber, at four times the price.

These small successes point to untapped demand. Cable providers maintain that today's broadband connections are adequate, and that there is no demand for greater connectivity. Time Warner even published a blog post downplaying the notion that they are "dinosaurs ignoring [a] growing rat problem," arguing that there are simply too many competitors.

These arguments overlook the fact that as more and more jobs, health care services and educational opportunities move online, access to cheap, high-speed broadband will be essential. In that environment, Crawford says, anything short of fiber will be inadequate.

"Americans are missing out and will continue to miss out on the kinds of educational opportunities that will only be possible with a fiber connection," she adds. "Many kinds of new jobs, new ways of making a living, are going to be dependent on the availability of cheap, very high-capacity connectivity."

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