While most schools have high-speed networks and fast internet connections, their ability to stream video or large files to students’ homes depends on the connection speeds of these households. That’s why a new study issued by the Communications Workers of America should raise a warning flag for educators: It says the United States has fallen to 16th place behind other industrialized nations in high-speed internet access.

Even within the U.S., the report says, large gaps exist among the average download speeds of the various states–raising questions about the equitability of students’ access to technology at home from state to state.

Iowans, for example, have a median download speed of 1.26 megabits. That’s not terrible considering the national average is 1.97–but it’s far behind the jackrabbit-like speed of Rhode Island, the fastest state, with 5.01 megabits. But even Rhode Island pales in comparison to countries such as Canada, with 7.60 megabits, or Japan, fastest in the world at 61 megabits.

“People in Japan can download an entire movie in just two minutes, but it can take two hours or more in the United States,” the report says. “Yet, people in Japan pay the same as we do in the U.S. for their internet connection.”

The union warns that slow internet speeds will dull America’s edge in competition with other countries, as the web becomes an even more important aspect of commerce.

“Why does speed matter?” the report asks. “Speed defines what is possible on the internet. It determines whether we will have the 21st-century networks we need to grow jobs and our economy, and whether we will be able to support innovations in telemedicine, education, public safety, and public services to improve our lives and communities.”

It continues: “Most U.S. internet connections today are not fast enough to permit interactive home-based medical monitoring, multimedia distance learning, or to send and receive data to run a home-based business.”

The report is based on data collected on the Speed Matters web site. Visitors to the site could take a test to determine how fast their internet connection speed is, and the study is based on results from more than 80,000 users.

“Most people who went to Speedmatters.org to take the speed test used either a DSL connection or cable modem,” the report says. “Very few people with dial-up took the test, because it took too long. According to surveys, somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of Americans still connect to the internet with a dial-up connection. So the median speeds in this report are actually higher than if dial-up internet users had chosen to participate in the survey. In other words, even these dismal statistics paint a rosier picture than the reality.”

The report calls for a national policy goal and steps to ensure that Americans aren’t left behind when it comes to internet speeds. It also suggests extending universal service subsidies–which currently support telephone service in rural areas, as well as internet infrastructure in schools and libraries–to support affordable, high-speed internet service for everyone.

The Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the telecommunications industry, defines “high speed” as 200 kilobits per second. The agency adopted this benchmark more than a decade ago, however, when dial-up internet access was the norm. The union’s study suggests adopting a standard of 2 megabits per second downstream, and 1 megabit per second upstream.

West Virginia, with a median download speed of 1.12 megabits, is one state that is trying to improve its high-speed internet systems.

State Sen. John Unger, co-chairman of the West Virginia Legislature’s select committee on broadband access, said West Virginia will only improve by extending high-speed service throughout its borders and creating more demand for faster access. In today’s economy, he said, there’s no excuse for doing otherwise.

“You can have all the nice roads and welcome signs you want, but if you don’t have the infrastructure and the demand for high-speed internet, we can’t do business,” he said.

Unger sponsored a bill earlier this year, approved by the Legislature, that he said would have helped accomplish those goals. Gov. Joe Manchin vetoed the bill, though, after getting an offer to help the state improve broadband access from Cisco Systems CEO and West Virginia native John Chambers.

The problem, though, might be less a matter of supply than of demand, according to Mark Polen, executive director of the West Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association.

About 80 percent of the homes in the state with internet access through their cable companies can get it at speeds of at least 3 megabits, Polen said. But the higher speeds typically cost more, which is no small matter for West Virginia, 49th overall in median household income.

About 34.6 percent of West Virginia households subscribe to broadband internet service, according to an April report by the state Advanced Services Task Force. The national average is about 49.6 percent. The report also found that about 59 percent of households in West Virginia have a computer, compared with 69 percent nationally.

“Whether we have one megabit or 10 megabits isn’t going to matter much if people don’t have computers and aren’t online,” Polen said.


Speed Matters