For the last four years, the content-distribution service Akamai has been publishing its State of the Internet report, which reads like a list of the haves and have-nots in the Internet world. The report details countries, regions, and cities that seem to have to the most impressive broadband capabilities — and, conversely, which seem to offer the least-capable connections to the global Internet.
So who wins? South Korea, with both the highest average connection bandwidth to Internet users (17.5 Mbps) as well as the highest average peak bandwidth delivered to users — a whopping 47.9 Mbps. At those speeds, a typical movie can be downloaded in in its entirety in high-definition in just over 30 minutes. A typical song download? Less than three and a half seconds.
Who are the losers? Countries like Cuba, the Solomon Islands, the Comoros, East Timor, Eritrea, Chad, Niger, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), all of whom measured as having average connection speeds under 300kbps. That same high definition movie would take more than 30 hours to download at 300kbps.
The United States? Akamai puts the U.S. at thirteenth in the world, with an average connection speed of 5.8 Mbps. That same HD movie would take over an hour and a half to download — meaning — on average and all things being equal (which they never are) — Americans with broadband have just barely enough bandwidth to stream a single high-definition movie in real time, if they don’t do much else on their Internet connection at the same time.
How they did it
Akamai is in an interesting position to make its “state of the Internet” assessments. Normally, gathering information like this would require regular contact with thousands of ISPs and mobile providers, regular assessment of their customer data — information those companies aren’t likely to provide since it reveals too much to their competitors — as well as actual measurement of Internet performance experienced by their users.
But Akamai can sidestep all that awkward question-asking because it’s one of the largest (quite possibly the largest) content delivery networks on the planet. Akamai started out as a mirroring service, with the idea that if a company needed to make something on the Internet available throughout the United States (or throughout the world), they could store it with Akamai instead of on a quickly-overwhelmed server in a data closet in the basement at company HQ. Akamai transparently mirrors that data across thousands of facilities around the world, meaning that not only does demand for data (like a video, a software update, or a free download) get distributed across thousands of servers, but most users won’t have to connect across half the Internet to get it. Most likely, they’ll pull it from a server that’s comparatively close by, at least in Internet terms.
Apple was one of Akamai’s early investors, and the business has grown substantially over the last decade to the point where Akamai estimates it serves between 15 to 30 percent of all Web traffic at any given time, spanning some 2 trillion Internet interactions a day. That gives the company a unique bird’s-eye view of how Internet traffic moves on a global scale. Akamai’s services also span a wide range of content. Akamai doesn’t just handle video streams and software updates anymore: it can act as a complete mirroring service for sites and handles back end stuff for the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix. (Disclosure: Digital Trends is also an Akamai customer.) So Akamai handles a wide variety of traffic too, instead of looking at (say) just paid downloads or streamed movies.
According to Akamai’s data, the top ten the countries with the highest average broadband connection speeds are:
- South Korea
- Hong Kong
- The Netherlands
- Czech Republic
However, there’s a massive gap between South Korea and the rest of the world: South Korea’s average broadband connection speed was 17.5 Mbps; number-two Japan’s was 9.1 Mbps — meaning the average South Korean broadband Internet connection is almost twice the bandwidth (92 percent faster) than the average connection in Japan. South Korea is ahead — way ahead.
Japan and Hong Kong actually have the same average connection speed during the fourth quarter of 2011; however, for Japan, that figure represets a 10 percent year-on-year improvement, where Hong Kong actually saw its average decline by 2.6 percent. We tend to think of broadband as a resource that’s always becoming available to more people and offering greater capacity, and it’s true that year-on-year all but two of the top-ten countries saw their average connection speeds improve. But Japan and South Korea were the only countries in the top ten that saw it’s average connection speed improve from the third quarter of 2011 to the fourth quarter — all others saw quarterly declines, with the Czech Republic and Hong Kong actually seeing their average connection speed respectively drop 12 percent and 14 percent quarter to quarter.
These declines can be caused by any number of factors, and the report doesn’t go into any detail on them — remember, Akamai didn’t talk with ISPs, providers, or end users directly. Many nations are small enough that their average broadband speeds could be significantly impacted by the failure of a single company or a natural disaster. Similarly, political or policy changes can have a broad impact: Libya saw a 250 percent increase in the number of Internet users connecting at speeds lower than 256 Kbps, thanks to the country’s revolution and its aftermath. In broader terms, broadband speeds can decline on average as consumers increasingly ditch their landline broadband and instead rely solely on mobile broadband and perhaps Wi-Fi connections for their Internet needs. Just as folks ditched traditional telephone service for mobile phones, many are ditching wired broadband for mobile — and, with 3G and even 4G technology, mobile often has far less bandwidth.
Another factor to consider: Averages can be easily skewed by outliers. If I have nine people who can connect to the Internet at 1 Mbps and a single person who can connect at zippy 20 Mbps, the average connection speed across those ten people is almost 3 Mbps. Talking about the average connection speed of those ten people misrepresents the actual experience of the majority. So when we talk about average connection speeds, it’s useful to know how access breaks down. So here’s another list of top ten countries, this time sorted by the number of Internet users who have connections above 5 Mbps:
- South Korea
- The Netherlands
- Hong Kong
- Czech Republic
South Korea is again the winner, with a whopping 83 percent of its Internet users connecting at speeds over 5 Mbps. But the Netherlands handily beats Japan (with percentages of 67 and 60 percent, respectively), and Hong Kong, Belgium, Switzerland, and Latvia all have more than half their Internet users connecting at over 5 Mbps.
The United States actually does better than thirteenth in this comparison. Akamai lists it as twelfth, but it’s essentially tied for tenth place with 44 percent of Internet users having connection speeds over 5 Mbps.
And here is where averages bite: the bottom of the list was India. Akamai shows its average connection speed as 839kbps, but India ended the year with only 0.5 percent of its Internet users on connections greater than 5 Mbps. Fully 27 percent of its users were on connections below 256 Kbps.
Akamai can also break out some of its data to specific cities — and the results are a little surprising. Guess what U.S. cities have the highest average connection speeds?
- Boston metro area, Massachusetts
- North Bergen, New Jersey
- Jersey City, New Jersey
- Monterey Park, California
- Clifton, New Jersey
All had average connection speeds of 8 Mbps or higher — almost double the national average. But, again, averages can be misleading. Which states had the highest proportion of users with connections over 5 Mbps?
- New Hampshire
- Rhode Island
- New Jersey
- District of Columbia
- New York
In other words, folks who live in the northeastern U.S. have a better chance of getting broadband over 5 Mbps than anywhere else in the country.
Globally, Japan dominates the world’s cities with peak broadband speeds — speeds at which networks can deliver brief bursts of data, rather than lengthy, sustained connections. South Korea takes the two top postions — with Daejeon and Daegu boasting peak speeds of 59.2 and 56.7 Mbps, respectively. But Japan accounts for 36 of the 50 fastest peak cities in the fourth quarter of 2011. South Korea landed six and the United States accounted for four.
What about mobile?
As more people rely on mobile Internet in their day-to-day lives, it makes sense that an increasing amount of Internet traffic would be going to mobile Internet providers and devices rather than fixed landline broadband connections. Akamai doesn’t currently break down mobile Internet access separately from its broadband analysis, but it has partnered with Ericsson — one of the world’s largest makers of mobile broadband equipment — to gather some data. Much of that data focuses on attacks from mobile users — would you believe Italy is far and away the global leader in attacks originating from its mobile networks? Some 24 percent of all attack traffic in Italy came from mobile devices, and that’s actually a 25 percent quarter-on-quarter improvement. China came in second with 9.2 percent.
Ericsson’s data clearly shows that while voice usage continues to grow, mobile data use has taken off worldwide, growing 28 percent between the third and fourth quarters of 2011 and doubling in the year from the fourth quarter of 2010 to 2011.
A patchwork of broadband
To quote author William Gibson, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Akamai’s figures show that broadband access is rapidly improving on a global scale, and the average bandwidth available to everyday Internet users is, by and large, increasing. Internet connectivity available today in many parts of the world — including developed nations — would have seemed like science fiction as recently as a decade ago, and there’s no question broadband capabilities have ushers in a new era of communication and media. One need look no further than the so-called Arab Spring and the rise of consumers smartphones to see the effects.
But bandwidth and connectivity are not ubiquitous. Let’s hope that in our rush to stream video and download the latest software updates, we don’t leave vast regions — and vast populations — out of the loop.