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US Broadband Ranking: Does It Matter?

Statistics that show the U.S. behind many other countries in broadband deployment don't tell the whole story and may not be as important as some critics suggest, a group of broadband experts said Friday.

In December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked the U.S. 15th among its 30 member nations in broadband adoption per capita. But the OECD statistics might give a better picture if they reflected broadband adoption for households, because families often share a connection and the OECD numbers have largely ignored broadband on smartphones and other wireless devices, said panelists at a broadband forum hosted by the Free State Foundation, a conservative think tank.

And the statistics may not matter much, said David Gross, former coordinator of international communications and information policy at the U.S Department of State. Gross, who worked in former President George W. Bush's administration, called the OECD statistics "deeply flawed," but also acknowledged that the organization is working to improve its broadband reports.

"It is not a zero-sum game," Gross said. "Rather, we all benefit from the more who are on it. The more people in the world who have broadband, who have access to the Internet, the better it is for all who already have it."

Still, the U.S. can do much to improve its broadband adoption rate, said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank. If the OECD measured household adoption, instead of per capita adoption, the U.S. would still rank only 12th, he said.

"The reality is, this is a complex issue," Atkinson said. "In some ways we're ahead, and in some ways we're behind."

The U.S. leads the world in broadband to schools, he said, and it's the only country now deploying fiber-based broadband outside urban areas. Part of the problem in the U.S., however, is with demand. Of 21 OECD countries with statistics available, the U.S. ranks 11th in PC ownership, Atkinson said, and without PCs, people aren't going to get wired broadband.

The debate over U.S. broadband roll out has been a huge public policy issue in recent years. Groups like Free Press and some U.S. lawmakers have argued that statistics showing the U.S. lagging in key broadband metrics show the need for new legislation and regulation to spur broadband deployment.

A huge economic stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress early this year included $7.2 billion for broadband deployment and two agencies given the money are working on rules for distributing the funds.

Gross and representatives of Verizon and wireless trade group CTIA seemed to suggest that significant broadband deployment in the U.S. is happening without major government action. But Atkinson suggested that countries at the top of the OECD rankings did it neither by leaving the broadband industry alone nor by enacting new regulations. Instead, countries like Japan, Sweden and South Korea provided incentives for broadband carriers to build out their networks, he said.

One largely ignored segment of broadband providers, both by OECD and by people who complain about not enough competition, are wireless providers, said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA. The number of U.S. subscribers with broadband access on their smartphones and other devices has grown from 3 million in 2006 to 73 million in 2008, he said.

"I do think broadband to the home is being rapidly overtaken by broadband to the person," he said.

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