Tuesday, November 6, 2018

U.S. Falling Behind in 5G?

It was probably inevitable that some would claim the United States is falling behind in the “race” to 5G.

After all, in the past, it has been argued that the United States was behind, or falling behind, in use of mobile phones, then smartphones, use of text messaging, broadband coverage, fiber to home, broadband speed or broadband price.

Some even have argued the United States was falling behind in spectrum auctions.  What such observations often miss is a highly dynamic environment, where apparently lagging metrics quickly are closed.

Nor is it hard to find observers worried that Europe is falling behind in internet businesses or 5G, as some argued Europe had fallen behind in 4G.

Just what winning or losing the 5G race could mean is not simple. Some people think “winning” is a matter of which countries deploy and obtain high adoption first. Others would argue that access does not matter as much as the ability to innovate and create in terms of connected business models, apps, services and processes.

International comparisons can be instructive, though sometimes not for the reasons one suspects. Consider voice adoption, where the best the United States ever ranked was about 15th, among nations of the world, for teledensity.

For the most part, nobody really seemed to think that ranking, rather than higher on the list, was a big problem, for several reasons. Coverage always is tougher for continents than for city states or small countries. Also, coverage always is easier for dense urban areas than rural areas. The United States, like some other countries (Canada, Australia, Russia) have vast areas of low population density where infrastructure is very costly.

On virtually any measure of service adoption (voice or fixed network broadband, for example), it will be difficult for a continent-sized market, with huge rural areas and lower density, to reach the very-highest ranks of coverage.

For such reasons, no continent-sized country with vast interior and sparsely-settled areas will reach the top of any list of countries with fastest speeds. Nor is it ever easy to “know” when speeds, prices or availability are a “problem.” Disparities between rural and urban areas almost always are viewed as a problem.

Prices are harder to characterize. When all countries are compared, such prices must be adjusted for purchasing power. In other words, price as a percentage of income provides a better measure of price. In developed markets, for example, internet access costs about 1.7 percent of per-person gross national income.

The International Telecommunications Union has argued that U.S. fixed network internet access prices are among the lowest-priced globally. Mobile internet access provides another view: in perhaps a hundred countries, mobile internet access already costs less than fixed access.  

According to the latest survey by Cable, U.S. average speed ranks it 20th globally for internet access speed. As always, a significant number of the countries with the highest speeds are small.

Singapore, which nearly always leads, is a city state. Others among the top 25 are small islands or countries that are relatively small in geographic area and more densely-populated “first world” states.

Most of the top 25 are in Europe, with the exception of Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States and Madagascar.  

That is not to dismiss the role of policy. Japan ranks 12th.

Rank Country Region Mean Download Speed
1 Singapore Asia & Pacific 60.39
2 Sweden Europe 46.00
3 Denmark Europe 43.99
4 Norway Europe 40.12
5 Romania Europe 38.60
6 Belgium Europe 36.71
7 Netherlands Europe 35.95
8 Luxembourg Europe 35.14
9 Hungary Europe 34.01
10 Jersey Europe 30.90
11 Switzerland Europe 29.92
12 Japan Asia 28.94
13 Latvia Europe 28.63
14 Taiwan Asia 28.09
15 Estonia Europe 27.91
16 Spain Europe 27.19
17 Lithuania Europe 27.17
18 Andorra Europe 27.14
19 Hong Kong Asia 26.45
20 U.S. North America 25.86
21 Slovakia Europe 25.30
22 Madagascar Africa 24.87
23 France Europe 24.23
24 Finland Europe 24.00
25 Germany Europe 24.00

Tracking broadband speed measurements in 200 countries, “the good news is that the global average speed is rising quickly,” Cable researchers say.

The average global broadband speed measured during the period from 11 May 2016 to 10 May 2017 was 7.40Mbps. The average global broadband speed measured during the period from 30 May 2017 to 29 May 2018 was 9.10 Mbps, a rise of 23 percent increase the authors say is “considerable.”

Speeds are growing faster at the top of the ranking, while there is little change in availability or uptake of faster infrastructure in the bottom half of the rankings. That particular trend is not new.

On average, the top 100 countries in the table have gained 5.43 Mbps while the bottom 100 in the table have gained by an average of only 0.41 Mbps, Cable says.

In part, that is an artifact of the existing speed differentials. The top 100 countries have increased their average broadband speed by 29 percent, while the bottom 100 countries have increased their average broadband speed by 24 percent.

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