Laurent Bernard, an intern at HSBC Holdings in Paris, recalls his U.S. Internet experience in 2008, the year he moved to New York City as a student.
"I noticed right away that the Internet was slower," said Bernard, 24. "The most annoying thing was the time it took for each Web page to load on the screen. In France, it's pretty much instantaneous."
After ranking third in the world a decade ago, the United States has dropped to 15th in the proportion of citizens receiving fast Web service, or broadband, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
South Korea, Iceland and Germany are among the countries that ranked higher in 2009, the Paris-based group says. Connections were both faster and cheaper in 12 countries, including Hungary and Denmark.
"We are not on the Olympic podium when it comes to broadband," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. "Other countries are not standing still, and neither should we."
The FCC under Genachowski is proposing to spend $16 billion in the next decade to close the gap. By boosting wireless service, shifting federal subsidies and encouraging investment, the FCC National Broadband Plan aims to give 100 million homes the same connection speeds available today in Portugal and Japan.
Internet access has triggered policy debates worldwide. Delegates at a United Nations conference that continues through Friday in Hyderabad, India, are discussing ways to increase Web use in the developing world, where home Internet availability is one-fifth that of rich nations.
While an FCC survey released Tuesday found that 91 percent of U.S. consumers say they're satisfied with the speed of their Internet service, that may be because they lack a base of comparison. The same survey of 3,005 adults showed that four out of five don't know how fast their Web service is.
By some measures, the U.S. is lower than in the OECD survey. Speedtest.net, a Seattle-based service embraced by the FCC, last month found the U.S. ranked 29th of 178 countries in download speeds.
Countries that rank higher than the U.S. tend to be densely populated, use subsidies and promote computer use, said Robert Atkinson, president of the Washington-based Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which studies innovation policy.
"The U.S. is behind because we're a big, spread-out country with lots of people who don't own computers," Atkinson said.
In France and elsewhere in Europe, "pretty intense competition" has led to lower prices, innovative services and fast connections, said Taylor Reynolds, a Paris-based economist with the OECD.
European regulators require France Telecom and other companies to lease lines to competitors, Reynolds said. Seven providers vie over the single line into his home west of Paris, where Internet downloads can be made at 20 megabits a second.
In the United States, where competitors lay their own lines to homes, the average broadband download speed is 4 megabits per second, according to the FCC.
The FCC in its National Broadband Plan issued March 16 doesn't call for adopting Europe's approach of forcing companies to share lines, an omission that "basically kicks the can down the road," said Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School.