Snail on a laptop indicating slowness

Is that really broadband? A look at the technologies in play.

The National Broadband Plan has set ambitious goals for high-speed Internet connectivity across the country, and agencies, cities and other municipalities have hopped on the broadband bandwagon.

But what exactly counts as broadband? The Federal Communications Commission originally designated broadband as anything faster than 200 kilobits/sec, which basically meant anything that wasn't the old dial-up modem, then upgraded it to 768 kilobits/sec downstream and 200 kilobits/sec upstream. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration still considers 768 kilobits/sec to be broadband at the most basic level, but the FCC in 2010 set the bar for the national broadband plan at 4 megabits/sec downstream and 1 megabit/sec upstream.

The range of available broadband technologies is still wide. Below is a rundown of the most common types of broadband, their range of transmission speeds and, to put it into context for the everyday user, an estimate of how long, on average, each technology would take to download a 1M book, 4M song and 6.14G movie, drawn from the trove of information available from NTIA's National Broadband Map.

Just as there is no single type of broadband, there are no guaranteed speeds for any broadband technology. Upload and download speeds often differ, and their range can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the standards being used. For wireless, speeds also are influenced by internal equipment on the customer's end, such as whether your WiFi router is 802.11 a, b, n or so on. Note also: The fastest speeds listed with each technology are ideal, almost theoretical, peaks that everyday users are not likely to reach.

Old copper wireline

The National Broadband Map's list of broadband technologies includes venerable, if past-their-prime, technologies that use copper phone lines to transmit data, including T-1, which was once considered the starting point for broadband, and ISDN, which hasn't made the grade for a long time.

T1:
Speed: 1.544 megabits/sec
Book: 5.3 seconds
Song: 21.3 seconds
Movie: 9 hours, 6 minutes

ISDN:
Speed: ISDN: 64 kilobits/sec to 128 kilobits/sec
Book: 40 seconds
Song: 2 minutes, 40 seconds
Movie: 68 hours, 16 minutes (read the screenplay instead)

DSL

Digital subscriber lines also transmit data over traditional copper phone lines, but at greater speeds that T1 or ISDN. Asymmetric DSL, used most often by home subscribers, has faster download speeds than upload speeds, since it is designed primarily for consumers of information. Symmetric DSL's upload and download speeds are the same, and it is more common in the enterprise. Although it has been around a long time and uses copper wires, DSL speeds are still getting faster  and DSL is still the fastest-growing type of wired broadband.

Speed: 500 kilobits/sec to 40 megabits/sec
Book: 2.7 to 5.3 seconds
Song: 10.7 to 21.3 seconds
Movie: 4 hours, 33 minutes to 9 hours, 6 minutes

Cable

Cable modem service uses the coaxial cables and other cable TV infrastructure to deliver Internet access. The current standard is DOCSIS 3.0 (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications), but some older DOCSIS standards are sometimes used, leading to a wide range in available speeds.

Speed: 512 kilobits/sec to 20 megabits/sec
Book: 0.3 seconds to 10.4 seconds
Song: 1.3 seconds to 41.7 seconds
Movie: 33 minutes to 9 hours, 6 minutes
Example: Cable broadband providers joined the FCC in an effort launched in November 2011 to provide inexpensive service to low-income families

Fiber

Fiber optic, the fastest broadband technology, converts electrical signals into light and then sends the light through glass fibers that are about the diameter of a human hair.

Speed: 5 megabits/sec to 150 megabits/sec
Book: 0.1 seconds to 1.3 seconds
Song: 0.3 seconds to 5.3 seconds
Movie: 8 minutes to 2 hours, 16 minutes.
Example: Lincoln, Neb., extends its fiber-optic municipal network.

Electric power line

Sometimes referred to as broadband-over-power lines (BPL), this technology sends data over the power lines connected to a consumer's residence, where special modems from the power companies provide access to the Internet.

Speed: 500 kilobits/sec to 3 megabits/sec
Book: 21.3 seconds to 10.4 seconds
Song: 5.3 seconds to 41.7 seconds
Movie: 2 hours, 16 minutes to 17 hours, 47 minutes
Example: The economic stimulus in 2009 included funding for efforts to establish BPL networks for rural customers in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia. 

Wireless

Terrestrial Fixed Wireless, unlicensed and licensed.
Unlicensed wireless provides broadband service to a specific location using spectrum shared by ISPs. Licensed wireless, as the name suggests, uses spectrum licensed to a provider. Terrestrial fixed wireless includes WiFi and WiMax.

Speed: Up to 40 megabits/sec.
Book: 0.2 seconds
Song: 0.6 seconds
Movie: 16 minutes
Examples: Houston installs high-speed WiMax coverage for the 640-square-mile city, Eduroam gives university users secure WiFi access to the cloud and Staunton, Va., builds a public WiFi network.

Terrestrial Mobile Wireless
Using spectrum licensed to providers, it includes 4G LTE and mobile WiMax.

Speed: LTE: 100 megabits/sec; WiMax: 40 megabits/sec.
Book: 0.1 seconds
Song: 0.3 seconds
Movie: 8 minutes
Examples:  Police in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., used a first-of-its-kind, law enforcement-only LTE cellular network as part of security operations during last year's Republican National Convention and
Denver area emergency crews set to get an LTE broadband system.

Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 13, 2013 earth

Show of hands now: Who remembers using the old 110 baud teletype over serial with 1 start bit, 2 stop bits and 2 bit inter-character spacing? A whopping 8.4 characters a second. Faster than the fastest typist. Book: 32 hours 49 minutes and 41 seconds. Song: 5 days 11 hours 18 minutes 48 seconds. Movie: forget about it, there wasn’t any media in existence that could store that much data or processers that could address it either. The computer at my first job had a 5 megabyte disk stack and only took up about a cubic yard for the disk drive. At least the computer that didn’t take a patch board.

Quite a change in part of one lifetime.

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