As I am listening to Swedish radio streamed over the Internet in my mid-Missouri home, I am reminded of the (comparatively) terrible state of American telecommunications. My first real culture shock as a Swede moving to the United States, after realizing the American people is genuinely and unbelievably generous (especially compared to their government and other peoples around the world), was the cost and quality of cellular phones and internet connections. The former (cost) is high, while the latter (quality) is low. I was used to the very opposite in the faraway land in the north, socialist Sweden.
Indeed, the radio commercial offers wireless internet (4G connection for your laptop) at 32 Mbps with unlimited data at less than $15/mo. Granted, it is only for the first six months, after which the price increases to the regular $32. But it includes the gargantuan Swedish sales tax (VAT, really) of 25%. At the same time, I can get the same kind of service but with slower speeds and much worse coverage from Sprint – for $49.99 plus several taxes and fees.
To top it off, my parents enjoy 100 Mbps broadband (that’s 100 Mbps both up and down, folks) in their house in the semi-rural outskirts of Stockholm and, obviously, they get their phone service, cable tv, and everything else through this awesome connection. I can of course listen to streaming radio on my 12 Mbps connection (12 down, only 1 up) here in urban mid-Missouri, but the market does not offer 100 Mbps (or even half the speed) connections. And I have several friends in the area with only dial-up connections of 56 kbps (!), which is unheard of in Sweden unless you live on a mountain top a hundred miles from your closest neighbor, perhaps.
Someone might think that “surely” the Swedish carriers and service providers are subsidized somehow. For internet service providers this may be the case, since there are plenty of municipal fiber optic networks. But there are plenty of those in the United States as well. America is much further from a market society than most of us would like to admit. What about cell phone carriers? No, not really – at least not more than any other corporation. They pay absurd annual “fees” to the authorities for permission to use radio frequencies. The better solution is, of course, to privatize the airwaves, but that is not likely to happen in any country I know of.
So are low-cost, high-quality telecommunications in Sweden due to the country being “not so sparsely populated as the US,” as someone claimed? No, that is definitely the case. Sweden is slightly larger than California with a population of only nine million. And those nine million are the only ones in the world speaking the proud Swedish language, which is hardly a cost-saving fact for businesses. Furthermore, your Swedish cell phone is usable almost everywhere in the country (except, perhaps, on mountain tops in the far northwest), including subways and on forest highways – using your own carrier. At the same time, I can drive only 30 minutes down one of the highways in Missouri for my cell phone to exclaim that there is “no signal detected” – from any carrier.
No matter what excuses we may think of, the telecommunications market in socialist Sweden arguably provides more value to consumers at (much) lower prices than any of the American carriers. So we must conclude that there is something severely wrong with the American telecommunications market. My guess? There is less of a market for wireless telecommunication in the U.S. than even in socialist Sweden…