The United States lags behind many nations in internet access and speed, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
In many areas the United States has the advantage over Romania—workers rights, child welfare, lack of former repressive dictators—but the internet is not one of them. Specifically our access to it, and its speed. The latest State of the Internet report, a quarterly review of online trends and digital data from cloud service Akamai, ranked the US at only No. 17 in the world, far behind Japan (No. 4), Israel (No. 5), and yes, Romania (No. 6).
According to NetIndex, an online listing of internet speeds culled by U.S. company Ookla, the average download time in the United States is 28.9 megabytes—and that’s just in more populous areas. Many rural parts of the USA clock in at connection speeds of 7.3 mbps or slower. Meanwhile, Romania enjoys peak speeds of around 58.7 mbps—the second-fastest internet in Europe.
Last week the FCC voted to define proper broadband internet access as a minimum download speed of 25 mbps (up from 4 mbps). This means we’re just barely above the acceptability line.
So how did Romania get such bomb internet? First and foremost, Romania is fairly small. With a population of 19 million, statistically there will always be fewer people online than other, densely packed countries. Also, according to the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union penetration rate in Romania is 50 percent versus our 80 percent. A smaller population, using the internet less frequently, in a tinier country all adds up to higher speeds.
In addition, Romania used its past weakness to its digital benefit. When high speed internet started becoming popular in Romania, there was no Romtelecom (Romania’s AT&T). To fill this need, small entrepreneurs began to create local neighborhood networks that were small and highly concentrated—only serving a few blocks at a time. According to ITU, many of these networks now have speeds of at least 100 mbps. Recently there have been discussions regarding the closure of these small-time operations. However, according to a study from ITU: “to date operators have not been forced to put their networks underground on a large scale and Romanians therefore enjoy access to relatively cheap broadband infrastructure in many urban areas.” Perhaps it might be time to use some of that legendary American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to help improve our wonky internet?