The 20th century was the age of the computer, and nothing shaped the last two decades as much as the Internet. Nearly every facet of life in advanced economies now interfaces with the web at some point each day, from cell phones and computers to transport systems and energy grids. With telegraphs a distant memory, the postal service struggling to find a way to stay relative and more of our day-to-day lives spent interacting with smart technology, it's hard to image a time in which we didn't have the Internet as part of our lives.
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The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the Internet accounted for 21% of GDP growth in developed countries over the past five years (it reviewed 13 countries), with most of the economic gains coming from outside of technology industries. Efficiencies created by a shift from traditional accounting and recording methods to ones supported by the Internet have eliminated some jobs, but estimates are that 2.6 jobs are created for every job lost in economies in which firms were modernizing.
In an age in which high-tech industries and financial firms rely on faster and faster Internet speeds to outpace the competition, countries are finding that they have a need for speed if they plan on keeping innovative firms happy. Even small and medium-sized businesses – the sort of companies that politicians talk about fostering – are becoming more and more reliant on online technologies.
While the United States captures the lion's share of Internet-based revenue and profits, other countries are seeing rapid growth rates in Internet usage. According to the International Telecommunication Union, an agency that is part of the United Nations, the United States had more than 83 million broadband Internet subscribers in 2010 (behind only China), the number of subscribers as a percentage of the overall population was below many western European countries, Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. (For related reading, see The Pros And Cons Of Internet Banks.)
A recent study by Akamai found that the top 10 countries in terms of download speeds were South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, Romania, Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland, Belgium and Ireland. The United States ranked 14th.
Top 10 Average Connection Speeds (World)
1. Tokai, Japan
2. Shimotsuma, Japan
3. Kanagawa, Japan
4. Seocho, South Korea
5. Asahi, Japan
6. Yokohama, Japan
7. Urawa, Japan
8. Ilsan, South Korea
9. Nagano, Japan
10. Hiroshima, Japan
The first city outside Japan or South Korea to make the list was Hong Kong (29), and the first city outside of Asia was Lyse, Norway (33). The United States made its debut with Riverside, Calif. (39).
Top 10 Average Connection Speeds (United States)
1. Riverside, Calif.
2. Staten Island, N.Y.
3. San Jose, Calif.
4. Fremont, Calif.
5. Boston, Mass.
6. Jersey City, N.J.
7. Marietta, Ga.
8. Anaheim, Calif.
9. Traverse City, Mich.
10. Hollywood, Fla.
Adoption of broadband Internet has increased across the world in recent years. The United States has a 77% adoption rate, far below the 90% plus of Hong Kong and many European countries.
The Bottom Line
Improving Internet speed requires a long-term commitment to investment in infrastructure, enough industry competition to prompt innovation and efficiencies and pricing models that allow a broader swath of a country's population to have access. The more far-flung a country's population is, the more difficult (and expensive) it may be to wire them in. But with so much riding on integrating more people into the web, both the developed and the developing world cannot afford to sit by as rival countries modernize.