Rank Disappointment

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Craig Aaron President and CEO, Free Press and the Free Press Action Fund

We're No. 4! We're No. 4! USA! USA! USA!

Today's New York Times touts a study that offers a new spin on America's digital decline. While every other recent study shows the United States falling further behind the rest of the world, a new Global Information Technology Report claims "the Internet infrastructure of the United States is one of the world's best and getting better."

What good news -- especially for the nation's cable and phone companies -- to hear that America has returned to its rightful place as a world Internet leader without changing a thing or, you know, having a national broadband policy. Take that, Chicken Little.

But before you pop the champagne, you might want to look at where this boost in the international broadband rankings came from. I didn't want to read through the whole thing either. So I checked in with Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner, a guy who lives for footnotes, who had already sifted through the fine print.

Details, Details

Take Appendix A of the study -- "Technical composition and computation of the Networked Readiness Index 2007-2008." That's a long way of saying "this is how we measured." And it turns out that Insead, the Paris business school that did the study for the World Economic Forum, relied on 68 factors to gauge "national network readiness."

However, Turner points out, only four of these factors have anything to do with residential use of broadband -- high-speed monthly broadband subscriptions, lowest cost of broadband, broadband Internet subscribers, and Internet bandwidth. Unfortunately, as so many other studies have shown, these four areas are not our strong points.

But we kick butt in the other categories. Yes, there is a high availability of venture capital. Yes, there is freedom of the press. Yes, our patent laws are vigorous in their protection of intellectual property. Yes, there are a large number of research scientists and engineers working at well-funded academic institutions. Yes, we have a robust business sector that uses personal computers and mobile phones. Yes, many governmental agencies have an online presence.

These are the precise factors that make the United States such a global economic powerhouse -- and these very factors are exactly why we expect to be doing so much better on measures of broadband deployment, adoption and quality. But we're not.

We Are (Behind) the World

In fact, in this race we're getting lapped by South Korea, France, Qatar and all the rest.

Consumers in these countries pay less for broadband connections that are much faster than we have here. That's because they have policies that foster more choice and innovation. Meanwhile, our phone and cable companies spend their money lobbying to kill competition and Net Neutrality, instead of investing in new networks.

What we really need instead of more excuses and fuzzy math is some national leadership to tackle the digital divide and bring the benefits of an open Internet to all Americans. That's something everyone could cheer.