How does the US really rank in broadband access?

In numbers that differ markedly from those cited by the US government and other sources, the European Commission is reporting that eight European countries all have higher household broadband deployment rates than in the US.

Although studies by the UK-based Point Topic also point to higher deployment for some countries in Europe, the deployment rates cited by the EC are much lower across the board.

The EC's "13th Progress Report on the Single Telecoms Market" cites Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden as having broadband penetration of more than 30%, as of the end of 2007. The US deployment rate is only 22.1%, the report contends, smaller than that of the UK, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France.

In contrast, according to Point Topic, 52.72% of all US households had a broadband connection as of the first quarter of 2007.

US-based Leichtman Research Group (LRG) has also found US penetration rates to be "consistently somewhere in the mid-fifties range," said Bruce Leichtman, company president and principal analyst, during an interview with BetaNews. "When I first saw the EC's report, I thought there must have been a misprint."

In a written statement about the report, the EC appeared to be trying to use its findings as evidence that attempts to increase competition in the telecom market are bearing positive results.

But according to Point Topic's research, which also incorporates other continents, South Korea actually has the highest broadband deployment rate of all countries in the world, at 89.38%, followed by Hong Kong (87.14%); Monaco (82.92%); and Iceland (75.76%). The Netherlands landed in sixth place (73.27%), Denmark in seventh (72.99%), and Norway in tenth (71.35%).

But the other northern European countries ranking high in the EC's report did not make it on to Point Topic's top ten list.

With its own penetration rate of 52.77%, the US moved up to 24th place in Point Topic's standings, nudging Australia back to 25th place.

"I don't know how the EC got its numbers," Leichtman noted. The analyst conjectured that if the EC used "a low speed level" of 256 Kbps, for example, as its definition of broadband, "this could apply to just about everyone." He added that LRG uses statistics from both broadband providers and consumer surveys to arrive at its percentages around US broadband penetration, and has also used figures from the Federal Communications Commission for some reports.

"But you have to be really careful with the FCC's numbers," Leichtman cautioned. For one thing, the FCC does not provide percentages. Also, he said, the FCC numbers sometimes mix together consumer broadband access with business broadband or mobile wireless penetration.

Separately this week, the FCC voted to replace its previous methodology for measuring how widely broadband is deployed in the US.

Although the full scope of the changes to be made isn't available yet, the FCC will replace 200 Kbps as its low-end speed for broadband with 768 Kbps, the entry-level speed offered by DSL providers such as Verizon.

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