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What is Broadband?

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Are you shopping for broadband internet providers?

If so, you've probably noticed by now that the term broadband seems to be used to describe a wide range of types of high-speed internet access.

But what does "broadband" mean? How fast is it? Do you need it? Are you actually getting broadband when you buy from companies that market themselves as broadband internet providers?

In this guide, I'll explain what true broadband means and where to get it.

Broadband Definition

Merriam-Webster defines broadband as: "of, relating to, or being a high-speed communications network and especially one in which a frequency range is divided into multiple independent channels for simultaneous transmission of signals (as voice, data, or video)."

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Of course, this is the general definition as it applies to various technologies. Technically speaking, it means that signals can be split to allow for using a landline phone or watching cable TV at the same time as you're surfing the web.

With multiple technologies in development even industry experts aren't sure exactly what direction broadband internet access might take in the future.

Broadband as Internet

As far as broadband internet goes, there are other factors at play in terms of defining what the word means. In practical terms, the word refers to the bandwidth capacity of a connection. Bandwidth is the amount of information that internet infrastructure is able to carry at one time. This translates directly into how fast your connection is - in other words, how quickly your web pages load, how smoothly video streams, and how fast you can upload and download files.

Types of Broadband

Before I get into the details of the different types of broadband connections, there are a few terms you should know. Broadband is available via multiple technologies. You may hear these referred to by slightly different names, however, in general, these are the basic variations:

  1. Fixed Line: A fixed - or terrestrial - connection is one that's facilitated via permanent wiring. Fixed broadband connections include cable, fiber, and DSL.
  2. Fixed Wireless: With a fixed wireless connection the equipment is mounted on buildings or towers. These devices then send the signal into your home wirelessly.
  3. Mobile: This is the type of connection you're using when you have a portable hub which you can take anywhere with you.
  4. Satellite: As I'll explain below, there is only one provider at this time which provides true satellite broadband. This is the type of connection you get with a dish. The signal is provided by a geostationary satellite in space.
What is Broadband?

So What Is Broadband?

While the dictionary definition of broadband remains the same, the technology to which it applies is continually evolving. What this means is that over time, specific speeds of internet connection become designated as broadband and then later are shed as newer, faster technology is developed.

Who Decides What Broadband Means?

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is the governing body which regulates the various communications industries. The commission is made up of five commissioners who are appointed by the President of the United States. The FCC collects data, makes recommendations, and sets rules for cable companies, telcos (telephone companies), and high-speed and broadband internet providers.

In 2010, the FCC set the target broadband speed at 4 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloads and 1Mbps for uploads. In 2015, the commission once again voted to redefine the meaning of broadband - this time making a considerable leap upwards to 25 Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream.

The Purpose of the Broadband Definition

You may be wondering why the FCC sets target numbers for internet speed. There are a number of reasons the commission sets these goals:

  • The FCC keeps track of demographic information such as how many people have access to certain types of internet connections. Setting a standard speed definition helps the government identify underserved populations and geographical areas in terms of broadband availability.
  • Internet access goals help the commission in making regulations which encourage broadband internet providers to expand deployment of high-speed internet services.
  • The FCC has instituted a program called the Connect America Fund (CAF) which gives broadband providers incentives for deploying high-speed internet into underserved areas. A set connection speed goal helps the commission to administer this program.

One prominent example of how the FCC's goals apply to broadband internet is the commission's Open Internet Order (commonly known as Net Neutrality). These rules were adopted in 2015 in order to, among other things, prevent high-speed internet providers from prioritizing certain types of web traffic over others.

Related: What Is High Speed Internet?

Do You Need Broadband?

If you go by the FCC's definition of broadband, most households can manage just fine with a slower connection. If, however, you have multiple devices running high-demand applications simultaneously you may want to consider going with higher speeds.

For example, Netflix recommends a minimum of a 5 Mbps connection to stream HD content. It's important to understand that this recommendation applies to each device running the service. For instance, in my household, two to three members may be viewing Netflix on separate devices at the same time. If you multiply that by the recommended speed, a minimum 15 Mbps is required for everything to run smoothly.

As you decide for or against true broadband, calculate your household's bandwidth usage first. The FCC provides a handy chart that makes it simple to do exactly that.

What Is a Broadband Connection?

There are multiple technologies which can provide a broadband internet connection. The types available to you will depend upon your geographical location. If you live in or near a large metropolitan area you're much more likely to have multiple options for broadband internet. If you live in a rural location, you may not have access to this type of high-speed internet at all.

There are multiple technologies which can provide a broadband internet connection. The types available to you will depend upon your geographical location.

Broadband Cable

Cable is the most common delivery method for internet overall, and is capable of speeds up to 100 Mbps or more.

Here are some things to know about broadband cable internet:

  • It provides an asymmetrical connection - meaning download speeds are much faster than upload speeds.
  • Fiber optic cables often bring the cable signal to your neighborhood or street, while coaxial cable brings it into your home. This is called FTTN (fiber to the node).
  • Broadband cable is susceptible to slowdowns during peak internet traffic times, which are typically on weekday evenings and all day on weekends.

There are exciting developments happening in the world of cable internet. According to Ars Technica, Comcast has already brought its new 1 Gbps (gigabits per second) cable service to four U.S. cities, with 11 more so far planned for 2017. The service works on DOCSIS 3.1 technology (DOCSIS is the protocol that your typical cable modem uses). This Comcast broadband cable option provides 1000 Mbps downloads and 35 Mbps uploads.

Fiber Optic Broadband

Fiber is sweeping the nation as broadband internet providers compete to provide the fastest, highest quality connection possible. Fiber optic internet delivers speeds between 50 Mbps and 10 Gbps. Even better, the connection is symmetrical - so you get upload speeds equal to download.

About fiber optic internet:

  • It suffers very minimal line attenuation (slowdowns over distance).
  • Your fiber line is your own, so high area internet traffic does not cause data congestion.
  • Equipment inside your home must be gigabit capable in order to get the full speed benefit of fiber.

Fiber optic broadband internet providers have, thus far, focused on large cities for their rollouts. According to the FCC, about 24 percent of Americans have access to a fiber connection.

Satellite Broadband

Satellite internet, for the most part, provides speeds between 5 Mbps and 15 Mbps. One of the best satellite internet providers, Exede, does offer download speeds of 25 Mbps. By most accounts, however, satellite is not a strong contender for the broadband connection of the future. It is, however, one of the fastest rural internet options.

Wireless Broadband

You may not have heard of it yet, but there is such a thing as wireless broadband internet. Some of the biggest names in the industry are working on ways to become wireless internet providers, like these wireless internet providers, on a large scale. Google Fiber acquired a service called WebPass in 2016, announcing its plans to expand the San Francisco-based wireless provider's service to other areas.

Even AT&T may be getting in on the action, with its planned testing of what it calls AirGig. This innovative method uses power lines to deliver gigabit-speed wireless broadband service to residential customers.

The Future of Broadband Internet

With multiple technologies in development, even industry experts aren't sure exactly what direction broadband internet access might take in the future. However, one thing is certain - connections are getting faster, better, and more accessible with every day that passes.

Broadband Internet Providers

When you're looking for high-speed internet access, you want to know where to get it and what speeds you can expect from broadband internet providers. Here are a few of the main providers and the speeds they offer, with links to more information:

AT&T: AT&T Internet currently includes fiber optic and cable internet. You can choose from cable speeds between 25 and 75 Mbps, or fiber speeds between 100 and 940 Mbps.

Comcast: Comcast Internet also comes in both cable and fiber options. Cable speeds are available up to 150 Mbps, and fiber up to 2 Gbps.

Verizon: Verizon FiOS broadband is only available in a handful of states so far, and runs on 100% fiber. Speeds for the service, called FiOS, range between 50 and 500 Mbps.

CenturyLink: This provider specializes in high-speed DSL, and has also added fiber to its offerings. You can enjoy speeds between 40 and 1000 Mbps with CenturyLink Internet.

Charter: This broadband provider offers speeds between 60 and 100 Mbps. Charter now owns Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks and is transitioning those companies to its Spectrum Internet program.

Cox: Cox Internet provides broadband cable at speeds ranging from 50 to 100 Mbps.

The cost of broadband internet runs between about $30 per month all the way up to $300 per month depending on the provider and plan you choose.

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DSL vs Broadband

DSL vs broadband is a bit of a misnomer. It used to be that these two connection types were mutually exclusive due to DSL's speed limitations. Now, however, you can get DSL speeds which qualify under the FCC's 25 Mbps download classification.

DSL as Broadband

The challenge with DSL internet is that it suffers a high line attenuation rate. This means that depending upon how far you are from the DSLAM (Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplex) your connection may lose a significant amount of speed. Under ideal conditions, within close proximity to the DSLAM, DSL may reach speeds up to 50 Mbps.

Most DSL providers give you average speeds between 5 and 15 Mbps. So when it comes down to DSL vs broadband, your best bet for reliably achieving downloads at 25 Mbps or greater is with cable or fiber optic internet. That could change in the future, however, due to a new technology called G.fast, which promises to deliver speeds up to 750 Mbps over DSL.

Recap

It's truly a great time to be an internet user. Broadband internet providers are working hard developing even better and faster ways for us to do all of the things we love to do online. First, though, you've got to find a local provider. We make that task easy and convenient with our ZIP code checker tool. Searching for internet providers by ZIP code allows you to quickly see what's available in your area so you can get on to the business of subscribing and enjoying your high-speed connection.

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