Here's how some of the top performers achieved their rankings:
Japan. The government requires local loop unbundling so that new ISPs can emerge without having to rewire the last mile every time. The government also has a 34 percent stake in NTT, one of the major telecoms, and has ordered it to deploy fiber whether or not it shows a profit; broadband is considered a key piece of infrastructure that can't simply be deployed only where it is profitable. The government also subsidizes a third of the cost of all fiber-to-the-home deployments in rural areas, where rolling out new lines can prove terribly expensive. The result is one of the fastest broadband networks in the world at one of the lowest price-per-megabit points anywhere.
France. In France, local loop unbundling was mandated in 1999 (the US ditched similar rules a few years later) and multiple competitors emerged. In December 2007, new fiber rules were promulgated that required all new construction to be compatible with fiber, which is much cheaper to install at the time of construction. The country's policies have been successful enough that competing ISPs like Iliad and Neuf Cegetel are no longer just content to lease their lines but are rolling out their own fiber infrastructure. While fiber ramps up, DSL too remains far above US offerings, providing 20Mbps for around $20 a month using ADSL2+ technology of the kind AT&T is now deploying for U-verse (though in AT&T's version, only part of this is available for Internet access).
Sweden. Sweden was the first European nation to have a broadband policy, and it has sunk $820 million into infrastructure so far. That might not sound like much, but it represents a $30 billion expenditure for a country the size of the US. The Swedish government is now recommending another $500 million to build fiber out further into rural areas, and fiber lines are unbundled to encourage competition.
Canada. Finally, Canada adopted a broadband plan in 2001 and it treats broadband as a core infrastructure element. It has about the same rural/urban mix as the US but a smaller economy per capita, and it is near the top of the OECD rankings.
This reminded me of a recent Broadband ranking report released by the ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation):
Rank Country Avg. Speed $ / Mb / month
1 South Korea 49.5 0.37
2 Japan 63.6 0.13
3 Finland 21.7 0.42
4 Netherlands 8.8 1.90
5 France 17.6 0.33
6 Sweden 16.8 0.35
7 Denmark 4.6 1.65
8 Iceland 6.1 4.93
9 Norway 7.7 2.74
10 Switzerland 2.3 3.40
11 Canada 7.6 3.81
12 Australia 1.7 0.94
(You can read the rest of the list, including more details per country, on the original PDF)
The ITIF had a very interesting followup report to this ranking. It went into excruciating detail, but also summarized it nicely. Here's a few of the important bits:
...the fact that over 50 percent of South Koreans live in large, multitenant apartment buildings makes it signifi cantly cheaper on a per-subscriber basis to roll out fast broadband there compared to the United States, where many people live in single-family suburban homes.
What the “it’s all environment” proponents miss is that broadband policies, while not the most important factor, do matter, and nations that ignore policy, assuming that the “market” can do all the heavy lifting, will fare worse than if they had smart broadband policies.
Too many advocates in the broadband debates look longingly overseas for the perfect broadband model to import, whether it’s unbundling from France, structural separation from the United Kingdom, or municipal provision of networks in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. But given the significant differences in economic, social, geographic and political factors between nations, many of these experiences are not easily transferred from one nation to another.
Leadership Matters: Overall, at the broadest level nations with robust national broadband strategies [...] fare better than those without.
Incentives Matter: Because it is expensive for operators to deploy broadband networks...
Competition Matters: [...] competition is important to broadband success.
It goes on to offer some concrete plans for the American policymakers to get off the damned fence and get shit done. Maybe Australia can learn from it.