For many low-income Americans, Internet access is a luxury they can't afford.
Too bad they don't live in South Korea.
By the end of this year, South Koreans will have access to Internet speeds that are more than 200 times faster than what most Americans have, and they can have it for just $27 a month, or slightly more than half the average price Americans pay.
South Korea is among several countries where people can find speedier and cheaper Internet access than in the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It's also a place where nearly everyone is online. More than 94 percent of South Koreans have high-speed connections -- compared with about 70 percent in the United States, according to the OECD.
As Democrats convene this week in Charlotte and outline their plan to jumpstart the economy, an important tool for implementing that strategy -- high-speed Internet connectivity -- is missing in the homes of millions of Americans. Many experts say a blueprint for expanding Internet access in America can be found abroad, where several countries have increased Internet adoption by regulating Internet service or declaring Internet access a legal right.
About 100 million people, or one third of the country, lack home access to broadband Internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). A fast, reliable Web connection has become a vital platform for finding jobs, starting a small business, accessing online education, and helping Americans compete in a global economy.
One of the biggest reasons people give for not subscribing to high-speed Internet is that it's too expensive. In 2010, the average monthly broadband bill was $40. That’s up from $34.50 in May 2008, according to surveys conducted by the FCC and Pew Research Center.
Internet providers say comparisons between the United States and other countries are flawed. But consumer groups argue that other countries offer better deals -- and have greater levels of Internet adoption -- because there is more competition in the market. Experts say the FCC should create policies which would ensure more companies compete to provide Internet service and keep prices low.
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Here are five countries where Internet access is faster and cheaper than in the United States, according to the OECD:
South Korea has long boasted some of the world's fastest and most accessible Internet. More than 94 percent of South Koreans have high-speed connections. In addition, the South Korean government has pledged to give its citizens access to 1 Gigabit per second Internet by the end of this year -- a speed more than 200 times faster than the average household connection in the United States. "South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do," President Barack Obama said during his 2011 State of the Union address.
In 2010, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband Internet access a legal right for all citizens. That's right: every one of the country's 5.3 million people will have guaranteed access to a high-speed Internet connection. Meanwhile, in the United States, about 19 million people have no access to high-speed Internet where they live. Finland isn't stopping there. It plans to make lightning fast 100-megabit broadband service a legal right by the end of 2015.
Swedish broadband is twice as fast and costs one-third the price of broadband in the U.S., according to a study by the New America Foundation. In 2007, a 75-year-old woman from central Sweden made headlines when she was given the world's fastest internet connection. She could download a full high-definition DVD in just two seconds.
Japan has some of the cheapest Internet connections in the world, according to the OECD. Japan's government has offered companies generous tax incentives to invest in fiber-optic cables. "The Japanese think long-term," a technology consultant told The New York Times in 2007. "If they think they will benefit in 100 years, they will invest for their grandkids. There's a bit of national pride we don't see in the West."
"Consumer broadband prices in France are now among the most affordable in the world," according to a study by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. The study attributed the low prices to regulations that allow rival Internet providers to share access to broadband infrastructure. France is also one of several countries that have declared Internet access "a basic human right."