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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Falling Behind in Fast Internet Services

NEW YORK -- The United States is starting to look slow on the Internet. Examples abound of countries that have faster and cheaper broadband connections and more of their population connected to them.

What's less clear is how badly the country that gave birth to the Internet is doing and whether the government needs to step in and do something about it. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has tried to foster broadband adoption with a hands-off approach. If that's seen as a failure by the next administration, the policy may change.

In a move to get a clearer picture of where the United States stands, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee last week approved legislation that would develop an inventory of existing broadband services available to households and businesses across the nation.

The bill is intended to provide policymakers with improved data so they can better use grants and subsidies to target areas lacking high-speed Internet access.

The inventory wouldn't cover other countries, but a cursory look shows the United States lagging behind at least some of them. In South Korea, for instance, the average apartment can get an Internet connection that is 15 times faster than the typical U.S. connection. In Paris, television, phone and broadband service costs less than half of what it does in the United States.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development compiles the most often cited international comparison. It puts the United States at 15th place for broadband lines per person in 2006, down from No. 4 in 2001.

Figures from the British research firm Point-Topic put the United States, with 55 percent of its households connected, in 17th place for adoption rates at the end of June (excluding some very small countries and territories like Macau and Hong Kong).

"We're now in the middle of the pack of developed countries," said Dave Burstein, telecom gadfly and the editor of the DSL Prime newsletter, during a debate at the Columbia Business School's Institute for Tele-Information.

Burstein says the United States is lagging because of low levels of investment by the big telecom companies and regulatory failure.

Several of the European countries that are doing well have forced telephone companies to rent their lines to Internet service providers for low fees. The ISPs use them to run broadband Digital Subscriber Lines, often at speeds much higher than those available in the United States.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission went down this regulatory road a few years ago, but legal challenges from the phone companies forced it to back away.

Part of the problem may be that people don't see fast Internet access as an essential part of modern life and may need more of a push to get on. The United States does have wider income disparities than many of the countries that are outdoing it in broadband, and people in poverty may have other priorities for their money.