Just An Online Minute... U.S. Broadband Penetration Lags

Here's the good news: There were 100.9 million U.S. high-speed connections -- at least 200 Kpbs downloads or uploads -- for homes and businesses last June. That marks a 23% increase from 82.2 million the year before, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report.

But here's the bad news: A new study by the European Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says that broadband penetration in the United States still lags behind 14 other countries. That report -- which defines broadband as speeds of over 256Kpbs in either direction -- pegged U.S. broadband penetration at 19.6%, compared to rates like 31.9% in Denmark, 29.1% in Korea and 23.8% in Canada.

Broadband capacity is playing a tremendous role in policy debates now under way that will shape the future of the Internet for decades to come. When Comcast was caught throttling traffic to peer-to-peer sites, the company's defense was that it has to do so to manage its network. Otherwise, Comcast says, a handful of bandwidth-hogs would cause delays for everyone.

Net neutrality advocates argue that the solution isn't for Internet service providers to ration bandwidth as if it's a precious commodity, but to invest in bigger pipes, so that more people can access the Web for more purposes.

But, obviously, this type of upgrade requires money, and Internet service providers currently don't face the kind of market pressure that would make this investment a priority. Many people only have two options for home broadband -- their local phone company or cable provider. Given that reality, consumers aren't in a position to vote with their feet and give their business to a broadband provider that doesn't impede traffic.

If the FCC wants to encourage net neutrality, it needs to figure out how to encourage Internet service providers to invest in their networks.

This week, the commission did announce at least one step in that direction: It will no longer count connections of 200Kpbs as broadband. Instead, 768Kpbs will be the minimum speed considered broadband. With the new definitions, the FCC should be able to get a better picture of the true situation -- which, hopefully, will be a start towards improving it.

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