Page last updated at 15:48 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 16:48 UK

US kept in slow broadband lane

Ian Hardy
By Ian Hardy
Click's North America technology correspondent

We all know that America is the technology hub of the universe. It is home to Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Google, YouTube, Yahoo, MIT - the list is endless. So why, when it comes to the basics, like delivering the internet to its citizens, has it fallen way behind many other nations?

In Manhattan people pay about $30 (15) a month for a download speed of three megabits per second (Mbps) via a DSL line. Many people are very happy with that, until they realise what is going on elsewhere in the world.

Using the USA internet
US broadband speeds are much slower than in many countries

"In Japan you can get 100 megabits for $35," says Selina Lo of Ruckus Wireless.

"I think that has penetrated some 30% of subscribers. The government is targeting for 100 megabit services to penetrate 60% plus of the subscriber base in a few years.

"If you look at places like Hong Kong and Europe, in many places you can get over 10 megabits from your broadband network."

Ten years ago, dozens of small DSL companies offered American consumers ever decreasing rates to the point where the businesses collapsed.

Today most New Yorkers have two choices for home net - via their phone or cable TV company.

But in New York state 52% of residents do not have any internet access, especially rural areas and low income families.

"We haven't been able to overcome those barriers in terms of increasing the technology adoption rate of those households that are on or below the poverty level," explains Dr Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, New York State's chief information officer.

"I think if you look at where the US is compared to other countries, given our speed, we're not competitive with other countries."

Limiting use

The lack of competition has had other consequences. Comcast, the nation's largest residential cable TV and net company was recently accused of interfering with the downloading of video files.

New York skyscrapers, AFP/Getty
Skyscrapers can cause problems for broadband firms

Internet video directly threatens the popularity of traditional TV, so Comcast's answer is to curtail download speeds for its biggest users.

"As we get more and more things that tie us into the internet - Xbox 360, IPTV services, all sorts of broadband gaming - we're all getting online more and more," says Jeremy Kaplan executive editor of PC Magazine.

"And rather than opening up and getting better service, most of these cable and DSL companies are really trying to limit what we do, put caps on what we do. As consumers we're suffering from that."

Public wi-fi efforts have also been held back. Several city governments have given up or reduced efforts to provide blanket coverage for their residents.

This is because they have been worn down with lawsuits and lobbyists working for the telephone companies, who want consumers to rely on expensive cell phone plans to access the net on the go.

"Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore - they all have wi-fi in public areas. People can access broadband internet when they're out in public," says Ms Lo.

"It is the cheapest way to offer public access. As a quality of life, as a city service, I don't know why our city government just don't do that."

'Sluggish progress'

Those same companies that are discouraging competition are gradually building the next generation of fibre optic networks.

They hope to migrate their increasingly frustrated customers. But due to simple logistics, millions of American city dwellers may not get the super fast service for years.

"Wiring up skyscrapers is a huge problem," explains Mr Kaplan. "They're old, they're giant, they're hard to change the wiring in. This has been the big hindrance to getting New York city wired.

Watching video online is seen as a threat to traditional TV
"If you have a house in the suburbs you're going to be one of the first to get this fast fibre service. So it's a strange dichotomy in the US. The big cities are not necessarily the most advanced."

America's sluggish progress on the broadband and wi-fi front may, ironically, be a result of being a leader in a past era.

Companies which invested heavily in hardware and infrastructure want to maintain the status quo.

This means keeping customers in the slow lane whilst reaping profits for as long as possible, even if it means putting the country's global high tech reputation at stake.

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