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Reacting to the Rankings

Infographic showing broadband choices in the US

Ars Technica is the first blog to publish a point-by-point review of our report on America’s standing in the international broadband rankings, so we congratulate them on their timeliness if not their accuracy.  This is to answer questions they raised about sources and to suggest a better way to analyze the broadband problem than the one they offer.

Our figures on the pricing of entry-level plans come from the survey conducted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU,) “Measuring the Information Society 2011.” In 2008 and 2010, ITU collected responses from 165 nations that place the U. S. 2nd in 2008 and 4th in 2010 in low prices for entry-level broadband plans as a percentage of average income. This price point is important because it shows how low the barrier is for getting poor kids online (without exposing them to fast food.) We’re not the first to highlight America’s low prices for basic service; Yochai Benkler’s Berkman Center report “Next Generation Connectivity,” accepts that the U. S. has low prices for basic service as well. It’s not a controversial finding in the research community, even if it clashes with urban legend.

Oddly, our claim that the average network speed in the United States is 29.6 Mpbs come from the very source that Ars uses in rebuttal, the 3Q 2012 State of the Internet Report from Akamai.  The disconnect here is that Akamai says the best way to evaluate network performance is with the “average peak connection speed” metric rather than the “average connection” metric. In Akamai’s own words: “In contrast to the average connection speed, the average peak connection speed is more representative of Internet connection capacity” (page 13.) This figure corrects for IP address sharing and is in fact 29.6 Mbps across all IP addresses in the U. S. We also use the Akamai figures on high-speed broadband adoption. We believe Average Peak is the better measure even though the U. S. ranks 8th in the world on average speed and 12th in average peak. We rank 7th on high speed adoption, so in any case we’re a Top 10 nation in two of the three speed metrics Akamai offers. We agree with Ars on one thing, however: Akamai is the best source for broadband speed data.

UPDATE: In their update in response to this response, Ars claims that a spokesman from Akamai agrees with their view but doesn’t offer any of Akamai’s words on the matter:

Ars contacted Chris Nicholson, a spokesperson at Akamai, who agreed with us that the “average connection speed,” of 7.2Mbps represents the actual, real-world average. As any Internet user can attest, real-world speeds fluctuate quite a bit, and an “average peak connection speed” is hardly the same as “average connection speed.”

They also attribute our quote from Akamai above to us. To clarify, this is what Akamai says in the report, not an ITIF argument:

“In contrast to the average connection speed, the average peak connection speed is more representative of Internet connection capacity” (page 13.)

You can believe the Akamai report or you can believe Ars Technica, your call.


Our figures for the adoption rate for homes with computers come from the OECD’s usage data on “Households with access to home computer (2010.)” Computer ownership is a broadband prerequisite, and ITIF has been promoting policies to increase it for years. It’s important because it relates to our biggest broadband issue, the relatively low use of the Internet by Americans who are poor, have low levels of education, are elderly, or are uncomfortable with technology. We believe it’s the right measure for adoption in broadband studies, since it helps to isolate adoption issues to the network, not to factors ISPs can’t control, such as poverty and lack of education.

Regarding the other issues Ars raises, we agree with New America’s Ben Lennet that America is “a big country” that needs fiber all over, not just in residential neighborhoods. It makes no sense to bring ultra-fast fiber to the each home until the backhaul, distribution, and core networks have the capacity to handle the traffic ultra-fast home connections can carry. America installed 19 million miles of new fiber in 2011 primarily to deal with capacity issues in the infrastructure.

The last mile itself has more capacity than most realize and does not represent the ultimate bottleneck (cable has an upside of several gigabits per second, and the next generations of DSL and LTE will reach 100 Mbps in many instances.) This is a fact of engineering, not an opinion.

When and where we’ll get higher speeds to the home for lower prices is a question that competition policy will answer. Our  “intermodal” competition policy means Verizon, Time Warner Cable, AT&T and Comcast compete on the basis of speed as well as price, which explains why full-fiber FiOS and mostly fiber U-verse are still adding subscribers faster than cable despite (what we hope is) a transient lull in deployment to new areas. When consumers show a taste for speed, ISPs generally supply it, not just in Sebastopol but across most of the nation, where 100 Mbps technology is available, if not fully utilized.

Regarding Ars’ claim that LTE “is not here yet,” our point was not to say LTE is a general substitute for wire as much as to point out that its deployment contradicts the assumption that American ISPs don’t care about speed. We also suggest that rural residents will need higher data limits than those that the common Verizon and AT&T rate plans currently offer; Sprint already offers such plans. The larger point is that LTE is only a rate plan or two away from replacing DSL in rural America, and that’s a relatively easy problem to solve.

Ars also compares nationwide networks in the U. S. with high-speed, low priced network service packages in cities such as Hong Kong, Riga, Seoul, and Tokyo. We discuss the geographic and policy reasons that American broadband is more expensive at the high end than comparable services in more compact areas. The bottom line is that it’s much more expensive to serve our expansive geography and dispersed population than the dense urban centers in many international cities. Our nationwide ISPs offer uniform pricing regardless of costs, an issue that small scale providers in Hong Kong, San Francisco, Seoul, and Sebastopol don’t need to worry about.

There’s an interesting policy argument behind America’s broadband pricing policy in which high speed, urban users pay charges that exceed costs while rural and low-speed users pay well below cost. The nations with the fastest networks have subsidized them quite heavily, and it’s not obvious at all that a similar exercise would make sense in America because of our high cost factors and the generally rapid pace of network improvement.

UPDATE TWO: Ars quotes Harold Feld on an electronic textbook program in Fairfax, VA that was cancelled due to lack of “affordable Internet access” in that wealthy city, but the Washington Post tells a different story:

The online math textbooks quickly hit several snags. Teachers said that many students did not have access to computers at home.

That’s ITIF 2, Ars 0 for those keeping score at home


How many teachers would you fire to subsidize a multi-gigabit network in Boring, Oregon or Uncertain, Texas?  For most Americans the answer is “none,” but Ars Technica is free to differ.

UPDATE THREE: See this article in The Register for an explanation of the strange, factually challenged response from Ars Technica: Official: America now a nation of broadband whingers: It’s no utopia, but at least you don’t get shot for chewing gum. On another factual note, “whinging” is British slang for “whining.”

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  • Rephrase your update 2 question : how many Pentagon boondoggles, armored divisions, admirals and generals would Americans kiss off for multi gigabit networks in any and every town in America?

  • Draugr

    Or instead, they could stop pretending there is some either/or choice between infrastructure and education.

    It’s clear where the priorities lie here., The report insist that anyone disagrees with them must be “holders of a particular ideology or economic doctrine,” This is no different than insisting people who disagree with them are COMMUNIST/TERRORISTS!”

    Their sophomoric inability to argue their positions effectively does more to discredit their claims than anything else.

    Your update that insists tells a different story, actually lends more credence to Ars’s assertion than your own. Of course that requires you to read the entire article, not just find and highlight the line that reinforces your own assertions.
    It seems like the issue was a matter of connection stability. They knew how many students had computers and how many didn’t well before they moved to a digital system. Just like with the digital systems in other school systems, They have accommodations for the students who do not have computers. The people who didn’t have computers were already offered textbooks to begin with. You can be assured that none of the people without computers were complaining about the issues with the online system – as they weren’t part of it. The article points out that the only people who were shelling out money for hard copy textbooks were people who were having issues with the online system.

  • b7fLuid

    “Oddly, our claim that the average network speed in the United States is 29.6 Mpbs come from the very source that Ars uses in rebuttal, the 3Q 2012 State of the Internet Report from Akamai.”

    Actually, what you’ve stated isn’t exactly correct. Although you both quote “The State of the Internet Report: America Highlights – Third Quarter, 2012” by Akamai, it actually indicates that the “average peak connection speed” is 29.6 Mbps which is definitely not the same as “the average network rate” which is the wording of point 4 of the chief findings in your report.

    I find it confusing that you again change your wording to “average network speed” in your rebuttal above which really sums up Ars’ point of contention if you decide to address it – i.e. you’re making it appear as though the average peak connection speed is synonymous with the average network rate. It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge this error in judgment as the casual reader may not read the actual reports and be “tricked” into believing they were the same metrics. This is even more confusing because the Akamai report actually uses the phrase “average connection speeds” as a separate metric for analysis! Did you not see this? Wouldn’t this be more synonymous with “average network speed”? You guys need to correct this glaring error both on the report and in your rebuttal above.

  • Average and Average Peak aren’t the same because of IP address sharing. If you and your roommate are stressing your shared Internet connection at the same time, you’ll each get roughly half the network’s capacity. That’s why Akamai itself says average peak is the best indicator of network capacity, not average speed.

    Our report is correct, Ars is wrong.

  • Tony S

    I’m not the most educated person when it comes to broadband (I used to work for a telephone company years ago but nothing that involved internet connectivity), but I’d appreciate if you could answer this question: Why the argument over Average and Average Peak speeds?

    It would seem pointless to discuss what the network is capable of when the most important factor is what is usable by the customer. Personally, I could care less if I’m on a network that is capable of speeds of 5 Gbps if my ISP will only sell me a 5 Mbps connection.

  • Joel

    Ok, so here’s what I see. Rather than try to improve an actual situation in which people think that their connection sucks, rather than try to improve our system to make it the best it can be, an organization has instead decided to spend valuable time and other resources to say it’s not really that bad. Regardless of all the technical garbage (really, what the heck was that statement about nobody excelling on two metrics supposed to mean?), why waste resources saying we’re ok instead of improving the system? If we’re 2nd best, why don’t we spend our energy becoming the best?

    This report has been a total waste of resources. It is also quite misleading. Seriously, saying we have a really good network capacity which is clearly not being fully utilized doesn’t say we’re fine. It says there’s something wrong. We shouldn’t have so much excess capacity. This clearly states that some barrier is preventing the use of that capacity. It may be due to the near monopoly that providers have. Or there may be other issues. In any case, this metric is far less useful than a measurement of average used bandwidth, and including both metrics contradicts the findings of this idiotic report.

    “Innovation”, indeed. There’s nothing less innovative than twisting reports to find an excuse to not change anything.

  • It’s not a question of what the ISP is selling you, it’s a question of how best to measure the performance of the product you bought. Akamai has three ways to assess network speed, and they say their “Avg Peak” is the best one. The reporter for Ars Technica disagrees with Akamai, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about as he’s not a technical person.

  • The point of the exercise is to see where we are today, not simply to dwell on where we were in the 2009 rankings that are so important to Susan Crawford et al. Our analysis says that the U. S. needs to focus on the adoption problem as speed and price are moving in the right direction. The US has risen from 22nd to 8th in Average Connection Speed since 2009, so that issue doesn’t need government help. We’ve also risen from from 12th to 7th on high speed use by broadband adopters, so that doesn’t need help either.

    The problems the US faces today are: 1) getting more computers in the hands of more people so they can get on-line; and 2) faster rural networks. Anything else is just wasting money.

  • There is a big difference between “Neo-Keynesian, populist economic thinking” and “Communists” let alone “Terrorists” which is not even an economic philosophy. If the editors and commentators at Ars Technica do not understand economic ideologies than maybe they should not comment on things they do not understand.

    Populist economic rhetoric is appealing to the emotional masses who have never read Friedman, Hayek or Mises and don’t understand economics in general but believe instead in wishful thinking.

  • Richard, please continue to engage those like the naive Ars crowd as this issue is spreading among our emotional younger generation who believe they are entitled to Internet access.

  • b7fLuid

    Richard, you still haven’t answered my question.

    My issue is not whether “average network speed” or “average peak connection speed” is a better indicator of network capacity, I am asking why you would substitute Akamai’s wording of “average peak connection speed of 29.6Mbps” with “average network speed of 29.6”. If they are not the same as you explain, why different wording on your report?

    I’m no research expert, but if you’re going to quote Akamai’s report, shouldn’t you quote the exact wording? Can you address this single point please because I need to know why the wording isn’t the same because it’s misleading.

  • Draugr

    My point (among the many) was you might as well have said, ‘Anyone who disagrees with me a stupid poo-poo head’ and it would have been just as silly.

    edit: I’m sorry using terrorist as an example was too confusing, I wasn’t sticking to economics when giving out examples of absurd name calling.

  • Geoff Quisenberry

    My Dad was a mainframe guy at the bank, I was born with a computer in my mouth like a lot of people I am just older than most of them. I have seen a lot and I think that this is an example of the bigger picture of what is wrong with our country right now. Washington and its politicians have convinced us that we are a two sided country and neither side can agree with the other throwing common sense or sometimes any sense of integrity out the door in order for the other side not to gain at all even at the expense of our citizens. When you are on the Broadband is Bad in this country side you have to make everything look bad because if it is not bad enough you don’t get enough support so the good doesn’t get praised and when you are on the Broadband is Good in this country side you have to totally gloss over the bad and work really hard to make it not look so bad. But when that happens with us we tend to the very worst of the situation throw some money at it so we can say Hey We are Working On It see, but then because that is usually a small percentage of the problem they can sweep the larger percentage under the rug it might take much more work to fix that. It took me a long time in my life to figure out that no matter what my intention is for doing something, whatever the perception is of the person I am doing it to or with, is what the reality is. If I am doing something to be nice, and it come across as being mean, then the reality is, it is mean, nothing I can do about it but apologize. So I think that what I perceive in this industry as a custom electronics installer that has to deal with these companies every day is that no one is happy with them. Doesn’t matter if it is their internet, TV, Phone, they are all frustrated with problems, service interruptions, and faulty equipment. This industry ranks at the bottom of all customer satisfaction surveys. Verizon FiOS is by far the best but they are not perfect either. So if the people aren’t happy maybe you should all stop shouting I’m right and you are wrong and maybe you can both be right and work together to make it what it should be. I don’t care about numbers whatever the numbers are if the people are happy then it will be right.

  • The report quotes Akamai on the meaning of Average Peak Connection speed in footnote 88:

    “The average peak connection speed metric represents an average of the maximum measured connection speeds across all of the unique IP addresses seen by Akamai from a particular geography. The average is used to mitigate the impact of unrepresentative maximum measured connection speeds. In contrast to the average connection speed, the average peak connection speed is more representative of Internet connection capacity. (This includes the application of so-called speed boosting technologies that may be implemented within the network by providers in order to deliver faster download speeds for some larger files.)”

    The report condenses “Internet connection capacity” to “network speed.” I don’t see that stylistic choice as misleading.

  • After comparing the objective facts to the claims that the populist critics have made about American networks vs. those in other nations, we found an enormous gap. We felt that gap needed explaining, so we offer an opinion about why the critics are out of sync with the facts.

    They could just be stupid, but it’s more polite to assume they’re the victims of their belief systems, like Scientologists. How do you explain people saying “the sky is red” when it’s clearly blue?

  • You’re a bit confuse, Draugr. If we had simply said that the people who want to spend massive amounts of taxpayer dollars on ever-higher speeds for the privileged while ignoring the poor are simply bad people, you’d have a point, but that’s not what we did.

    Our analysis laid out an argument in 63 pages that proved that a significant number of the people who style themselves broadband experts are dead wrong on the facts.

    After doing that, and only after doing it, we offered an explanation as to why they had got the facts so badly mangled. If you have another explanation, I’d be glad to see it. But maybe you’re just here to call names.

  • b7fLuid

    Your quoting of footnote 88 in ITIF report is actually pretty damning evidence that you’ve twisted their words. First, the statement that “In contrast to the average connection speed, the average peak connection speed is more representative of internet capacity” shows a clear delineation between the two terms. They’ve even used the word “contrast” which highlights and emphasizes how different those two terms are. Secondly, even if they’ve indicated that the average peak connection is a better measure of internet connection capacity, that doesn’t justify your convenient substitution of the term “average network speed” for “average peak connection speed” especially when Akamai uses the similar term “average connection speed” as a separate metric.

    If I could post a pic of Akamai’s report here I would. In that
    pic it would clearly show two graphs, placed side by side, of what they
    indicate average connection speeds would be (7.2Mbps for the U.S.), and
    what the average peak connection speed would be (29.6Mbps for the
    U.S.). These are two clearly different metrics used by Akamai. Here’s
    the link so that people can see for themselves.

    “The report condenses “Internet connection capacity” to “network speed.” I don’t see that stylistic choice as misleading.”

    Your above statement sums up my argument entirely – you don’t see that your substitution of Akamai’s term with your own as misleading but others do and with good grounds. It’s confusing to me that someone quoting another person’s/group’s work would voluntarily misquote a term/metric where the only justification for doing so is apparently “style”. Why you think condensing this term is necessary is beyond me and totally inappropriate considering this is clearly a no-no in research referencing methodology. If you had operationalized that definition or even made reference to the substitution in your report I might be swayed to believe otherwise, but even then you haven’t.

  • Either way, b7fLuid. By Average Connection Speed, the US ranks 8th in the Akamai rankings, and by Average Peak Connection speed we’re 14th, so take your pick.

  • app_farmer

    On the “average speed” argument, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Average Peak Connection Speed (the ITIF number) is like how quickly you can go from your home to your office if every light is green, there are no slowdowns and the parking spot in front of your office door is ready for your arrival. It is really fast but not a “real world” number. Average Connection Speed (the Ars number) reflects the observed world where people wait at red lights, hit the brakes at the mere imagining of a squirrel and crawl through the whole parking lot on a quest to find the last remaining parking space.

    Also the Post article linked cites several reasons the online textbook program failed. One of them: “Parents complained that the online texts required an expensive fast Internet connection.” Where I am, the required connection cost would be 5x that of my current (basic) DSL plan.

    LTE is also not merely a rate plan from replacing DSL in rural areas. It has to be installed in rural areas, first.

    Ars may have overreacted but that doesn’t mean ITIF didn’t present a fantasy as reality.

  • Adam Van Hal

    While we may not feel entitled to internet it is becoming a necessity. I did not have internet until high school. This meant I needed to find neighbors and public locations that had internet access if I wanted to compete with my peers. Now the school that I used to attend practically requires internet. Math lectures are posted online so that students do homework in class where they can ask questions. Other classes have online homework submission that is due at 9 pm and you don’t get time to do it in class. Many rural families are struggling with how they can give their students an education without a strong internet connection (some still don’t have the option to buy more than dial up, others can’t afford more than dial up) Without strong internet connections America will struggle in the near future. Perhaps Internet needs to achieve the same status as utilities like water and electricity.

  • Even in rural areas they will likely have access to satellite Internet access and possibly wireless (if they have cell phone access). Most people will find that they have access to multiple broadband providers, despite the nonsense pushed by the entitlement crowd. It is pure propaganda that rural families are struggling to give their students an education. Every school will work with students no matter their situation. If you choose to live in a rural area there are sacrifices you have to accept for living there and one of them is reduced convenience to services.

    Everyone else can usually get DSL for $10-20 a month, so there is little excuse not to be able to afford it. It usually entails sacrificing ordering pizza once a month. It is not my responsibility to subsidize someone else’s Internet access simply because they choose McDonalds over broadband and do not know how to manage their money.

    The Internet is a luxury, just like electricity and running water none of which you are entitled to.

  • pt

    You guys are such tools. Ars was not trying to start a war, like you pricks are happy to do and happy to carry on. Ars was saying that you guys are idiots for painting such a rose colored picture of outrageous prices, limiting bandwidth caps, no competition, and poor coverage.

    If you want to report the facts and let the consumer draw their own conclusions, fine… but as soon as you take teleco money and start putting the positive spin on your coverage, be prepared to have your bullshit called.

  • slgarry

    You might be right and the internet in the US is just doing swimmingly, thank you very much. It is fast as hell and getting faster every day. However, that is not my
    personal experience, I live in Oakland, CA, on the edge of Silicon Valley and my current median download speed is 1.5mbps. This is up from 1.3mbps a couple of years ago and I am happy about that. I cannot watch most Wimp videos without endless interruptions but that is a small thing. I am about as far as I can be from the “Central Office” which means I’m not going to get faster service until something changes.

    I could get faster service but that would mean doing business with COMCAST or AT&T and I’m trying to avoid that because previous experience with those companies has be extremely poor from a customer service POV. My current
    ISP has excellent customer service. I never have to wait longer than 30 seconds for a service technician and the people are very knowledgeable and tenacious, staying with me until the problem is resolved. Of course they cannot
    resolve the speed problem. Yes I think that 1.5mbps constitutes a speed problem.
    Perhaps I am spoiled, but it does seem slow to me.

    When I was in Viet Nam many years ago we were keeping track of the number of kills or “body count”. This was the prescribed metric for achieving success in the progress of the conflict. I don’t know if you recall or not but that ended very badly. And the metrics we were using to gauge success played a part in that. So I’m
    wondering if you are actually using the right metrics to measure how well we
    are doing internet-wise? Is the “average connection speed” really the best measure of how well we are doing. We don’t measure average household incomes if we know what we are doing we use a median because of the long tail at the upper end of the distribution. Most of us probably wouldn’t measure the success of the economy by counting the number of millionaires created in the last year either.

    I’m just one guy but I’m on the net 8-14 hours a day and I have to tell you it is not nearly fast enough for me. And I can’t help but thinking that my ISP is not playing a level playing field and that the real, viable choices are far fewer than your metrics lead you to believe.

  • LostAlone

    Wow…. Just wow.

    You genuinely think there are people living in poverty who chose to buy take out instead of anything else in their lives?

    Ten bucks a month to you means pizza. If you’re poor that means food for a week or more. People don’t chose to spend their money on other things than internet access, they’re too busy trying not to starve to death or get cholera to make choices with their budget.

    In the modern age internet connections (and power, and yes even water) is not a luxury. They are required to live the way that you personally do. The way that everyone in the west strives to. There’s places in the third world with better internet connections than the rural US, despite the US having much greater reliance on those connections for people successfully live their lives.

    With almost all of the resources available for people to better themselves, getting a job, a better education and applying for a lot of jobs now all done online, your argument is totally circular.

    If people don’t have the internet, they aren’t going to be able to get a find job to pay for the internet. If they don’t have the internet or a familiarity with computers, they can’t get jobs that rely on both of them to do, which is almost all of them.

    So forever more if you weren’t brought up around computers you are screwed for your whole life and you should never have any chance to improve yourself?

    Of course not. In fact, your argument pretty much says that you shouldn’t have to pay for schools for poor kids, because if they can’t afford to pay for their own educations its a waste of time anyway.

    You’re a terrible human being.

  • Yes, there are many people like this as I have personally met them. I worked for a NJ housing authority before.

    I have yet to meet a person who is self-sufficient who cannot afford a $10 a month Internet connection if they budgeted their money right.

    No one has a right to the Internet anymore then they have a right to electricity. It is laughably absurd to claim the Internet is anything but a luxury.

    What third world places? Other countries that have a better Internet connection are not rural. Those who choose to live in a rural area have to deal with the reality that they may not have a high-speed connection. It costs more to provide high-speed rural access and if they don’t like it, they can always move.

    Unless you work online no job requires an Internet connection and it is nothing more than a luxury.

  • Jack Ebersole

    See, for all this political talk about how wonderful it is to have service inferior to countries that, just over 2 decades ago, were third-world USSR satellite states (the implication of course being that they’ve gone from third-world dictatorships to technological powerhouses while we have not), I can’t help but notice that my internet service still sucks, that I consistently get less than a third of the speed I pay for both in ping and data rate (and this wasn’t just a quick glance at SpeedTest, this was a data analyzer logging data from tests conducted every 10 minutes for 3 weeks. Comcast has mechanisms to bullshit simple speed tests), that my connection remains woefully unstable (my tests found that there was a consistent packet loss rate of 6%, even when attached directly to the modem-on a functional network, this should be 0), and that both of the ISPs I’ve had (Comcast and AT&T) either refused or failed to do anything about it in the years I had their service. Oh well. It’ll be all the more delicious to watch the inevitable moron circus that the ISPs will devolve into when Google Fiber rolls out.