Broadband 101 is meant to be a “gentle introduction to broadband” for the non-technical reader. In this first part, I’ll try to explain what “broadband” means and how to differentiate between broadband and non-broadband access.


Most commonly, internet access is talked about in two flavors, dial-up and broadband. This is an over-generalization, however. It makes it appear as if any type of internet access that is not dial up is broadband. While this may have been true ten years ago, it is not the case today.

When people, technical and non-technical alike, talk about broadband internet access, they are primarily talking about the speed of the user’s connection. This connection speed will determine how fast a user can download a web page or email pictures of the grandkids. This speed will also determine if the user can make use of other resources on the internet, like interactive mapping, watch an online TV show, or have a video chat family or friends.

Before talking about bits and bytes, Mega this and kilo that, I’ll provide a couple of points of reference. Let’s relate “internet speed” to “human speed”. I’m going to compare 3 types of internet access, dial up, DSL (provided by telephone companies over telephone lines), and cable. In the table below I’ve listed some common methods of internet access and given real world speed equivalents in miles per hour (I’ll abbreviate it mph):

Internet Access         Speed     Is Like
----------------------------------------------------
Dial Up                  7 mph   Jogging
slowest DSL service    160 mph   Corvette ZR1 going way too fast
slowest cable service  209 mph   Corvette ZR1 with the pedal to the metal
fast cable service   5,200 mph   Faster than the space shuttle flying into orbit

Well, it’s great that some people can get internet access that’s faster than the space shuttle, but how does this affect me as an internet user? Most noticeably, the faster the connection the faster you can access online resources such as loading web pages or sending and reading email. There are also some types of services, like video conferencing and streaming, which require a certain speed or they will not function.  Faster access also allows you to access more resources at the same time, like listening to internet radio while web browsing or having more users on at the same time.

I think that gives a good idea of not only how slow dial up is compared to other forms of access but how much variation there is among “broadband” plans. Now that we have some points of reference, let’s convert these numbers to “internet speed”.

Internet providers will tell you the speed of their service in mega bits per second, abbreviated Mbps, or kilo bits per second, abbreviated kbps. Right off we’re confused because we’ve got two types of speeds, Mbps and kbps. Luckily, there is a conversion between the two and it’s not too hard. Here it is: 1000 kbps = 1 Mbps. In this article I am going to present everything in Mbps to try and make it less confusing.

You also may see the term “bandwidth” used instead of speed.  Just remember that, when talking about broadband, “bandwidth” and “speed” mean the same thing. Below I’ve presented the same table in “internet speed”:

Internet Access        Internet Speed
--------------------------------------
Dial Up                 0.0336 Mbps
slowest DSL service     0.768 Mbps
slowest cable service   1.0 Mbps
fast cable service     25.0 Mbps

If you’re a rural user, without cable or dsl access, you may be wondering how does this compare to the satellite or 3G wireless access that you can get. Well, a pictures worth a thousand words, so I’ve summarized the speed of many of the various forms of access in the chart below:

There are a few items to note about that chart:

  • It reflects services that are generally available in Washtenaw County, Michigan.
  • There are much higher speed plans, such as 60 Mbps cable, available in areas like Ann Arbor.
  • These are “advertised speeds”, which are generally faster than actual speeds the user will get most of the time. I will elaborate on this difference in a following chapter.

The next question you’re probably asking is “Are all of these broadband? If not, which are?”. Unfortunately, every service provider will market their service as “broadband”.  Also there is not one agreed upon definition of broadband.

The slowest definition of broadband access that I am aware of is 0.256 Mbps (or 256 kbps) by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development1. This definition has been questioned, however, as being too low2. Personnally, as an internet user, I agree that 0.256 Mbps is not broadband. The fastest definition I am aware of is the Federal Communications Commission’s definition at 4 Mbps3. Another definition by The International Telecommunications Union (the people who wrote the standards for streaming video and DSL among others) define broadband access as greater than the “primary rate”4 which is 1.5 Mbps in the U.S. What is really interesting about the ITU definition of broadband, though, is that it is from 1997! If they had to reevaluate it today, would they propose a higher speed?

So, the definition of broadband is clear as mud, huh. I will propose that the FCC has the correct definition. Why? Looking at data reported by Cicso Systems (the company who makes the hardware that makes the internet tick), we see that worldwide, the average broadband user’s download speed in 2010 was 4.4 Mbps5. The FCC definition agrees surprisingly well with this data. Interestingly, Cicso predicts average speeds will by 14.4 Mbps by 2014:

The 4 Mbps speed also agrees well with the bandwidth required for video streaming.  To use services such as Apple TV or Google TV, you need an absolute minimum of 2.5 Mbps6  7 to get Standard Definition (SD) video.  You would probably hear from user’s, though, that 4 or 5 Mbps is the minimum needed.  Given its increasing ubiquity, the ability to stream video seems like a sensible benchmark for broadband.

Let’s do one last thing. Let’s revisit our chart comparing different broadband plans, but overalay the “broadband threshold” as defined by the FCC. This should give a good visual as to what services are truly broadband and what are not.

Advertised Bandwidth vs. FCC Broadband

So we see, based on speed alone, The satellite and 3G wireless plans that rural users can get are not considered broadband.  Furthermore, the low level cable and DSL plans aren’t broadband either.

I hope this gives a more clear understanding of what types of internet access are available, what the differences in speed are, and how to know if you have “broadband”. Please feel free to post questions or comments, I’ll do my best to help out!

  1. “Indicators of Broadband Coverage”, oecd.org, December 10, 2009, <http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/41/39/44381795.pdf> []
  2. “OECD Broadband Report Questioned”, websiteoptimization.com, retrieved February 14, 2011, <http://www.websiteoptimization.com/bw/0705/> []
  3. “Sixth Broadband Deployment Report”, fcc.gov, July 20, 2010 <http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-129A1.pdf> []
  4. “ITU-T I.113, Vocabular of terms for broadband aspects of ISDN”, itu.int, June 1997 <http://www.catr.cn/radar/itut/201007/P020100707545428328349.pdf> []
  5. “Hyperconnectivity and the Approaching Zettabyte Era”, cicso.com, June 2, 2010 <http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns827/VNI_Hyperconnectivity_WP.pdf> []
  6. “Streaming Media”, Wikipedia.org, retrieved February 15, 2011, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streaming_media> []
  7. “Video Bandwidth Estimator”, Sorenson Services USA, retrieved February 15, 2011, <http://www.sorenson-usa.com/vbe/index.html> []