Canadian customers enjoyed download speeds of 2.5 megabits per second to well above 3 megabits per second. U.S. networks delivered speeds ranging from just above 1 megabit per second to around 2.7 megabits per second. By some measures, the U.S. ranks 32nd in average broadband download speeds.
Stuck in First Gear
The relatively slow speeds of the U.S. networks compared to the rest of the world made sense, but the speed rates reported by Netflix looked too slow to me. After all, Verizon's (VZ) FiOS network has extremely fast download speeds due to its architecture of pulling a fiber optic cable to each subscriber. So why didn't Verizon rank higher?
Complaints that U.S. broadband networks lag far behind those of other countries aren't new, and Canada is a mild example. in most surveys, South Korea, Japan, Finland and even former Eastern Bloc countries such as Romania run rings around U.S. networks.
Here's what interests me most about the Netflix analysis: Most U.S. broadband providers advertise download speeds of higher than 3 megabits per second as their entry-level product. All the cable connections that I've purchased lately have claimed to offer speeds of 5 megabits per second or greater.
Granted, the fine print states "speeds up to" rather than, say, "average speeds of." But the Netflix numbers make me question whether there's any real difference between the different speed tiers that ISPs sell. The top tier generally costs $20 to $25 per month more than the lowest, and that price differential is probably pure profit for the big ISPs.
Broadband as a Competitiveness Factor
None of this would really be an issue at all if the U.S. had crossed the threshold that assured enough bandwidth to households to alleviate any issues with supersize downloads and high-definition video streaming. Far be it from me to describe a policy or economic structure that would bring us to that point.
But perhaps, as the U.S. government seeks ways for the nation to maintain its competitive advantage, it could put some effort into figuring out a way to kick up broadband speeds a notch. Catching up to the rest of the world on high-speed Internet infrastructure couldn't hurt America's chances of maintaining the economic edge everyone fears this country is losing.