The FCC requires broadband firms to report by Zip code, the UK's regulator Ofcom by actual lines installed: I've come across a situation that's relatively well known in the industry, but I'm not quite sure that the average person gets this. And the average reporter clearly does not. When the FCC says that 99 percent of the US population has access to broadband--not subscribes to, but is passed by service they could choose to subscribe to--they are deriving this in the following specious way: 95 percent of Zip code areas in the US have at least a single subscriber to a broadband service. Further, broadband is 200 Kbps or faster in either direction.
The General Accounting Office released a report in May 2006 critical of this notion of Zip code availability. In checking out Kentucky, for instance, they found a gap of about 19 percent between the FCC's methodology and reality. The FCC reported 96 percent Zip code area availability of broadband; the GAO used data from a state alliance in Kentucky that showed 77 percent household availability. A Free Press report from August 2006 also notes that the FCC's so-called Zip code database is a private one that doesn't match US Census Zip Code Tabulation Areas, a standard method of defining regions. (The Free Press looks at a host of metrics, including the fact that Americans pay much more per Mbps for service, that that gap in payment has grown, and that the overall broadband speeds haven't increased comparable to other industrialized nations.)
Contrast this with Ofcom, the British spectrum regulator. Their 2006 communications market report is insanely detailed, and not uniformly congratulatory. There's some measure of non-political analysis present at all times. But the British have reason to cheer on broadband. Due to regulatory requirements that force BT to provide non-discriminatory access to its DSL lines, and to charge a uniform rate of about £11 per month for a naked line, Ofcom reports an actual number: 95 percent of homes passed by broadband DSL, 45 percent by cable. Further, broadband in this report is 512 Kbps. Still below the real threshold--1 Mbps symmetrical is much more reasonable when looking at what you can do and what other nations offer--but substantially higher.
Remember that both numbers are about availability, not about actual subscribers. Britain's 11.1m broadband subscribers represent about less than half the households. The 50m US broadband subscribers are somewhat further less than half. But let's recall: broadband in the UK must be at least 150% faster to be called that. More than a quarter of UK households use dial-up; less than a quarter in the US.
This has led a decrease of home telecom spending from nearly £120 per month in 2001 to about £80 in 2005 (in 2005 pounds). Broadband cost halved during that period. In one measure in the Ofcom report, 512 Kbps broadband dropped from £45 per month in 2001 to £10 per month in 2005--and "most operators no longer market a 512 Kbps service." 1 Mbps ADSL averages £15 per month now, and "greater than 1 Mbps" just £16 per month.
In the UK, it's now typical to be offered as fast as 8 Mbps ADSL at no cost beyond the £11 line fee--which BT may lower this year when they hit a milestone with regulators--if you subscribe to a certain mobile plan or a satellite television plan.
I can't find a similar time series in the US for the full package of services--the line, fixed-line calls, mobile calls, and broadband--but broadband prices have apparently stagnated.
I'm not proposing the regulation is the answer. But I'm pointing out the gap between what's commonly cited by reporters because the FCC puts the number out--99 percent of Americans and 95 percent of Zip codes--versus the reality, and how a comparable nation reports its numbers.