June 17, 2009 By Indrajit Basu
Other than his resolve to usher in a new era, a significant contributor to Barack Obama's sweeping victory in the presidential election was his ability to effectively use technology to reach out to voters. Harnessing the power of digital technologies, particularly the Internet, Obama garnered unprecedented support for himself in the election. But he continues to seize the medium to make his government more accessible and transparent, and thus, sweeping the current popularity charts.
Yet as Obama delivers his weekly video addresses to the nation via WhiteHouse.gov or third-party sites like YouTube, an uncomfortable fact is that nearly half of all Americans can't watch his speeches on the Internet. Not that they don't want to, but because they lack Internet connectivity.
According to several recent surveys, the U.S. is falling behind in the global broadband penetration race. Far too many Americans lack broadband access, depriving them of the resources they need to compete in today's global economy.
The average broadband speed for American residents, for instance, is 5 Mbps, compared with 63 Mbps in Japan and 49 Mbps in South Korea. And according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation's 2008 ITIF Broadband Rankings, 43 out of every 100 American households lack high-speed Internet connectivity.
Consequently, regardless of claims to the contrary by the FCC and many others, the digital divide in America is widening and will continue to grow unless some real changes are made.
But in some areas, the picture looks rosy. Take the Connectivity Scorecard 2009 that measures the extent to which governments, businesses and consumers use connectivity technologies to enhance social and economic prosperity. According to this report on information and communication technologies (ICT) penetration and usage in the business arena, the U.S. leads in business excellence connectivity. "The strong performance of the U.S. in the Connectivity Scorecard is a surprise," the report said.
The U.S. lags behind many countries in residential PC penetration and has lower mobile penetration than Europe (although actual mobile usage as measured in "outgoing minutes" is very high).
"Even as the U.S. scored consistently well across the board, especially in the business domain, where the weighting is heavy, the country is considerably weak in consumer infrastructure, falling a long way behind other leaders," said the Connectivity Scorecard's author Leonard Waverman, fellow of the London Business School and Dean of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
"Besides, 3G penetration and broadband penetration is particularly moderate by standards of other industrial nations," he said, adding, "If the U.S. scored as high as Korea on 3G and broadband penetration, its overall score would have been far higher."
Connectivity Scorecard 2009 found some bright spots in the U.S.'s connectivity scenario, but the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU) Measuring the Information Society - ICT Development Index for 2009, released in February, showed disappointing results. Though all but one country improved their scores over the five-year period (2002-2007), a notable absence in the top 10 is the U.S., which ranked 17th in 2007, according to the study.
"Although gaining on both access and usage, the United States has not yet reached the same high ICT penetration levels as several European countries," according to the ITU's report. "In the United States, for example, 62 percent of households had Internet access in 2007, compared to 79 percent in Sweden."