Twenty-second in average speed. Sixth in penetration. These statistics are the rankings of the broadband services in the United States compared to other countries around the world, according to Akamai’s most recent report. Surprised?

Most Americans have adopted the mentality that the United States has been and will always be the world leader. But when it comes to the Internet, this is simply not the case. The world is rapidly changing because of technology and the Internet, but the United States is not adapting fast enough. According to the Speedmatters.org annual survey of Internet speeds, if the United States maintains its current rate of improvement, it will take 15 years for us to catch up to the internet connection speeds found today in South Korea.

The Internet offers a faster, more efficient way for people to communicate, changing how most aspects of life and society operate. As stated in the federal government’s National Broadband Plan, the Internet “is changing how we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and access, organize and disseminate knowledge.”

Many, if not most, Americans fail to realize that we are rapidly falling behind other countries in Internet development. Countries around the world offer higher speeds, more availability, and lower costs.

How do they do it? Is it because those countries can afford to supply more and faster Internet because of smaller populations?

No.

In fact, most of the countries ahead of the United States in broadband capabilities have a lower GDP per capita.

Well then, is it because the United States has large expanses of rural and low density areas?

No.

Several of the countries ahead of the United States in broadband capabilities have more rural areas and remote populations than does the United States.

The obvious question then is this: How does the United States catch up and surpass countries such as Japan, South Korea and Sweden?

In many countries, national government intervention has played a large role in broadband service development, while our government has not assisted in this development until recently, providing funds in the Recovery Act. Thus far, broadband infrastructure development has been left to the private sector and the markets. Although companies such as AT&T and Verizon have invested quite a bit in broadband development, it has not been enough. The United States has fallen and continues to fall farther behind in the speed, availability and affordability of Internet access. The U.S. free market and its competitive forces have proven insufficient for effective broadband development.

It is time for the government to take responsibility for the nation’s future, which hinges on technology and the Internet. The government should categorize broadband infrastructure as a public good, similar to public utilities such as water or electricity. If the Internet is elevated to the status of a public utility, it is more likely to receive the funding and attention it needs.

As Harold Feld of the Media Access Project said, the United States needs “to start looking at this as an infrastructure issue rather than as a business.” Just like water and electricity, broadband is a vital infrastructure for the future. Municipalities throughout the country have realized private companies are not willing to make the investment needed to provide high-speed Internet infrastructure. As a result, these municipalities have incorporated broadband services into their public utilities.

Wilson, North Carolina is an example of this shift. Through the municipal broadband service, Wilson residents now have access to faster Internet service than that service provided by private companies. The Internet as a public utility has allowed the municipality to receive the revenues from Internet subscriptions, which is then put toward investments in more broadband infrastructure and other municipal projects. Other cities have developed broadband as a public utility, including Chattanooga, Gainesville and Santa Monica. The public utility model has been successful in cities throughout Europe as well, including Vienna, Austria and Vasteras, Sweden.

If the United States does not make broadband a national priority by treating it as a public infrastructure, we will continue to fall behind. As stated in the National Broadband Plan, access to high-speed Internet capabilities is comparable to electricity access as it is “a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness, and a better way of life.”

The government needs to take action before we fall farther behind and the ability of the United States to compete in the global economy declines. By treating broadband as a public utility, the government can ensure broadband expansion gets the attention it needs domestically and enhance the global competitiveness of the United States in the future.