Internet access

'Broadband' adoption is up, but let's not get too excited

August 27, 2013: 4:08 PM ET

Should we think of smartphones as providing "broadband access?" What about DSL service with speeds not far above dial-up access?

Hang plugging in ethernet cable to globe

FORTUNE -- Broadband adoption in the U.S. continues to rise, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Among adults 18 and older, 70% have broadband access at home -- up from 66% a year ago.

As Pew notes, that's a significant increase. But a deeper look at the numbers shows that broadband deployment in the U.S. remains sub-par, especially when you consider that the Internet was invented here, and we're supposed to be the global leader in innovation.

The survey considers "broadband" to be anything that delivers download speeds of 4 Mbps, which is about what the most anemic DSL services provide. That's actually accurate enough (the FCC uses the same standard) -- and that's the problem. Akamai reported in April that the average broadband speed in the U.S. had actually grown by 28% in the previous year -- to a pathetic 7.4 Mbps. The U.S. came in eighth in Akamai's ranking -- just after the Czech Republic, which boasts an average broadband speed of 8.1 Mbps. South Korea placed first, with 14 Mbps. Japan's average was 10.8.

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Parts of Pew's survey report assume that smartphones provide "broadband access." That might help make the digital divide seem a bit narrower, as long as you don't think about it too much. Yes, you can watch movies on your phone, but even if the movies run smoothly, watching them can quickly eat up data caps and cost money.

Otherwise, Pew reports that while 90% of college graduates have broadband in their homes, only 37% of non-high school graduates and 54% of those making less than $30,000 a year do. There are racial differences, too, but according to Pew, ownership of smartphones among blacks and Hispanics nearly bridges that gap.

In some ways, that makes sense. If you have neither in-home broadband nor a smartphone, you're way behind someone with one or both. But that shouldn't lead us to believe that owning a smartphone makes up for the lack of home broadband.

Law professor Susan Crawford, who analyzes the communications industry, writes at Wired that counting slow bandwidth at home, and counting smartphones as broadband, "allows us to pretend there's a vibrant marketplace for high-speed Internet access, with satellite duking it out with cable modem access, mobile wireless supplanting the need for a wire at home, and no need for oversight or a change in industrial policy."

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