What is Broadband?

Elements of a Broadband Platform

Despite its worldwide growth and promotion by policymakers, network operators, content providers and other stakeholders, broadband does not have a single, standardized definition. The term “broadband” may refer to multiple aspects of the network and services, including: 1) the infrastructure or “pipes” used to deliver services to users; 2) high-speed access to the Internet; and/or 3) the services and applications available via broadband networks, such as Internet protocol television (IPTV) and voice services that may be bundled in a “triple play” package with broadband Internet access. Further, many countries have established definitions of broadband based on speed, typically in Mbit/s or kilobits per second (kbit/s), or based on the types of services and applications that can be used over a broadband network (i.e., functionality). Due to each country’s unique needs and history, including economic, geographic and regulatory factors, definitions of broadband vary widely.

Traditionally, broadband has often been defined in terms of data transmission speed (i.e., the amount of data that can be transmitted across a network connection in a given period of time, typically one second, also known as the data transfer rate or throughput). Defining broadband in terms of speed has been an important element in understanding broadband, particularly since the data transfer rate determines whether users are able to access basic or more advanced types of content, services and applications over the Internet. However, attempts to define broadband in terms of speed present certain limitations. To address these limitations, some countries (e.g., Brazil)* and international organizations (e.g., OECD)* have decided or proposed not to categorize broadband in terms of speed, but are instead looking at broadband in terms of functionality—focusing on what can and cannot be done with a certain type of connection.

  • 1.2.1 Broadband as an Enabling Platform

    The Broadband Strategies Toolkit and Handbook view broadband more holistically as a high-capacity ICT platform that improves the variety, utility and value of services and applications offered by a wide range of providers, to the benefit of users, society, and multiple sectors of the economy.

    From a policy perspective, broadband should not be viewed simply as a certain speed or functionality, but as an enabling ICT platform that can potentially influence the entire economy. As noted by the OECD and the World Bank, the true benefits of broadband are expected to arise less from any direct impact but instead from the applications that broadband enables and the associated gains in productivity.* While there are direct effects from investments in broadband technology and deployment of the infrastructure, the indirect effects arise from factors that drive growth, including innovation, efficiency and competition, as well as the facilitation of new and useful products, services, processes and business models that could not exist without broadband.* According to the OECD, as broadband technology continues to improve and bandwidth increases, the capacity for broadband to act as an enabler of structural change in the economy expands due to its impact on an increasing number of sectors and activities.* Viewing broadband as an enabling platform and key input across sectors is the basis of identifying the role that broadband can play as a general purpose technology (GPT), which is further addressed in the section 1.3.4.

    In order to capture the full range of these potential benefits, it may be useful for policymakers to consider broadband through an ecosystem framework, as outlined in section 1.5.1. This perspective comprises both supply-side considerations (network platforms) and demand-side considerations, such as e-government initiatives, development of services and applications). To encourage the diffusion of broadband-enabled innovations throughout the economy, policymakers should also consider the absorptive capacity of various sectors, including health, education, energy and transportation. Unless all these elements—supply, demand, and absorptive capacity—are coordinated, the impact of broadband on the economy as a whole will be constrained.

  • 1.2.2 Broadband in Terms of Speed, Functionality and Technology

    Seeing broadband as an enabling ICT platform does not contradict or exclude common understandings that define broadband in terms of speed, functionality, or technology. This section will give an overview of more specific elements of broadband, usually used to narrow the term down.

    In the most practical sense, the term broadband is generally understood to mean a dedicated or “always-on” connection to the Internet with speeds faster than dial-up. The concept of broadband also involves being able to do things that are virtually impossible to do over dial-up given its limited bandwidth—videoconferencing, online gaming and watching videos, to name a few. Broadband has commonly been defined in terms of a minimum data transmission speed, usually referring to the amount a user can download. Defining broadband in terms of speed refers to the amount of data (generally in bits) that can be transmitted across a network connection in a given period of time, typically one second. Also known as the data transfer rate or throughput, speed has been an important element in understanding broadband, particularly since the data transfer rate determines the types and range of content, services and applications that a user may access.

    Speed matters for users: An increasing number of Internet applications, such as those that display high-quality video content, require high speeds to work. These applications often cannot be downloaded or viewed unless the Internet connection is of a certain speed and quality. When a user tries to access an application hosted on a remote server, the speed and quality of the user’s connection is measured by the server, and an error message is displayed if the connection does not meet the minimum requirements to provide the service. Even if an Internet application or website does not impose these requirements, there are other consequences to users on slower connections. Usability suffers when an application or website meant to be used over broadband is accessed over dial-up, often to the point of futility. A website or application that is accessible but effectively unusable over slower connections will lead only to frustrated users and, for commercial websites, higher expenses for customer support. In addition, as broadband connections have become faster and more widespread, website designers have taken advantage of the added bandwidth to offer richer and more complex websites. Consumers on slower connections, and especially those on dial-up, may find that their experience on the Internet worsens with each website redesign.

    1 kbit/s = 1,000 bits per second

    1 Mbit/s = 1,000,000 bits per second (1,000 kbit/s)

    1 Gbit/s = 1,000,000,000 bits per second (1,000 Mbit/s)

    Understanding Broadband Speeds
    BOX 1.1.

    However, definitions of the precise threshold of transmission rates that determines whether Internet access is considered broadband vary. At the low end, broadband is often defined as download speeds of at least 256 kilobits per second (kbit/s). A 2009 ITU document, for example, defines broadband as at least 256 kbit/s.*This is the definition used by other organizations, including the OECD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the Partnership for Measuring ICT for Development, a consortium of international organizations and agencies. However, Recommendation I.113 of the ITU Standardization Sector, defines broadband as “transmission capacity that is faster than [...] at 1.5 or 2.0” Mbit/s, and in reality, broadband services are increasingly being offered at 100 megabits per second (Mbit/s), with the goal of reaching 1 Gigabit per second (Gbit/s) and beyond.* The higher the data transfer rate, the faster that files can be transmitted and, in this way, broadband speed is linked with functionality.

    Attempts to define broadband more specifically in terms of speed can be challenging. As a 2008 study on behalf of the European Union (EU) noted:

    Definitions based on data transfer speed are not able to take into account the very fast evolution in technologies and uses. Is a bandwidth of 256 kbit/s a broadband connection? Should the lower limit be set to 1 Mbit/s? There is no definitive answer as the bandwidth required to run internet applications is continuously increasing and infrastructure standards are also continuously improving to face the growing demand. Such a definition can only be relative to a particular moment in time in a particular country.*

    Defining broadband in terms of speed presents several difficulties. First, broadband speed definitions vary widely among countries and international organizations from at least 256 kbit/s on the low end (such as in India)* to faster than 1.5 Mbit/s on the high end (such as in Canada). Second, as referenced in the above-mentioned EU study, definitions based on speed may not keep pace with technology advances or with the speeds services and applications require to function properly. In other words, what is considered “broadband” today may be seen as too slow in the future as more advanced applications technologies develop. Thus, any speed-based definition of broadband will need to be updated over time. Third, such definitions may not reflect the speeds realized by end users such that the speeds advertised by commercial broadband providers may be much higher than the speeds set by the government as broadband or vice versa. For example, while Colombia’s broadband speed definition is 1 Mbit/s, its average broadband connection speed is already 1.8 Mbit/s.

    Policymakers and regulators are struggling to develop definitions of broadband that are appropriate to the time and that reflect rapidly improving technological capabilities. In July 2009, for example, India’s telecommunications regulator suggested that the government redefine broadband as connectivity of 2 Mbit/s or faster, up from the 256 kbit/s defined in the Broadband Policy of 2004.* Some countries have developed different categories in addressing broadband. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, for example, distinguishes between “high-speed Internet service,” defined as at least 128 kbit/s, and “broadband service,” which must be at least 1.5 Mbit/s.

    In addition to or in place of these definitions, a number of countries have minimized or avoided the issue of defining broadband in terms of speed and have focused instead on setting ambitious minimum speed goals. Broadband speed goals in these countries include:

    • Australia’s goal is to make connections with speeds of 100 Mbit/s available to 93 percent of homes, schools, and businesses by 2018.
    • Finland has the goal of making 100 Mbit/s connections available to every household by 2016.
    • Germany’s goal is 50 Mbit/s connections for 75 percent of households by 2014.*
    • The EU’s “Digital Agenda for Europe” calls for all Europeans to have access to connections with speeds of at least 30 Mbit/s by 2020, with 50 percent or more of households having access to speeds in excess of 100 Mbit/s.
    • Korea, a country where broadband connection speeds already average almost 50 Mbit/s, has set the lofty goal of 1 Gbit/s connections by 2013.*
    • Sweden aims for 40 percent of households and businesses having access to 100 Mbit/s connections by 2015, and 90 percent by 2020.*
    • The United Kingdom has relatively modest goals. Its “Digital Britain” plan aims for universal connections of at least 2 Mbit/s by 2012.*
    • The United States set a goal of providing 100 million households with access to actual (not advertised) speeds of 100 Mbit/sMbit/s and all households with access to actual speeds of at least 4 Mbit/s downlink and 1 Mbit/s uplink by 2020.Given the speed and unpredictability of technological progress, the FCC plans to “review and revise” these goals every four years.*

    Some countries are moving away completely from understanding broadband in terms of speed and instead seek to define it in terms of functionality. This is because minimum upload and download numbers do not always paint the whole picture, and definitions based on bandwidth run the risk of always being a step behind. Defining broadband in terms of functionality cuts to the chase: what can and cannot be done with a certain connection. As with many information technologies, broadband has demonstrated that it is quick-to-market, continually changing and unpredictable. Customer expectations are continually ramping up as the need for more bandwidth and faster connections is driven by more advanced services and applications.

    For example, Brazil’s broadband plan avoids attaching a minimum speed to its definition of broadband. Instead, broadband is defined as “the provision of telecommunications infrastructure that enables information traffic in a continuous and uninterrupted manner, with sufficient capacity to provide access to data, voice and video applications that are common or socially relevant to users as determined by the federal government from time to time.”* This definition identifies those Internet applications that must be accessible over an Internet connection in order for that connection to be considered broadband. At the same time, it allows for the government to adjust the set of Internet applications that serve as the benchmark.

    However, for some purposes, defining broadband in terms of functionality can be problematic as meeting the definition becomes more subjective. A definition based on speed is easy to apply: if broadband is defined as at least 1.5 Mbit/s, a 2 Mbit/s connection is broadband while a 1 Mbit/s connection is not. But when broadband is defined in terms of functionality, the distinction between what is and is not broadband becomes fuzzy. Admittedly, this can lead to positive outcomes, for example, if citizens of a country can appeal to operators and regulators for speeds that meet actual current usage criteria. Yet, the questions that need to be answered also become more equivocal: Is being able to watch a YouTube video equal to a broadband connection? What if it takes minutes to buffer and starts and stops throughout?

    For several contexts, being able to universally quantify broadband can be useful. If a country wants to compare itself to its peers in terms of broadband penetration, for example, it needs to follow a common metric. If it wants to be able to track its growth in broadband availability from year to year, it needs to set a standard that can be easily and reliably measured over time. Likewise, if it wants to hold accountable telecommunications providers to their broadband deployment plans it must provide a clear definition or set of expectations for providers to meet.

    To allay some of the aforementioned shortcomings, some countries seem to be embracing a “hybrid” approach to defining broadband. On one hand, they specify the minimum speed that will qualify as broadband. On the other hand, they list the Internet applications that a broadband connection should support. For example, the Canadian National Broadband Task Force has defined broadband as “a high-capacity, two-way link between end users and access network suppliers capable of supporting full-motion interactive video applications to all Canadians on terms comparable to those available in urban markets.” Nonetheless, the CRTC defines broadband as at least 1.5 Mbit/s (with anything faster than 128 kbit/s being defined as “high-speed”). The U.S. Federal Communications Commission divides broadband into tiers as described above, but also describes broadband as an “advanced communications systems capable of providing high-speed transmission of services such as data, voice, and video over the Internet and other networks.”*

    Next to speed and functionality, in addressing “what is broadband,” it is also useful to identify the various wireline and wireless technologies that deliver connectivity to users. Generally, the three main wireline technologies currently in use to deliver broadband to end user locations are: 1) digital subscriber line (DSL); 2) hybrid fiber coaxial cable (HFC) or cable modem; and 3) fiber optic cable. Fiber networks generally offer the fastest speeds. Particularly if fiber network access reaches directly to the end user’s home or business, referred to as fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP), then download speeds can reach 100 Mbit/s or more.Maximum download speeds ranging from 40 Mbit/s to over 100 Mbit/s can be achieved through fiber-to-the-curb or -cabinet (FTTC), which carries the fiber network to within a few hundred meters of the end user location with the remaining distance covered by copper or coaxial cable.* Fiber, as well as cable modem and the more advanced versions of DSL (such as Very-High-Speed DSL), can support the latest business services, such as videoconferencing ‘or triple play’ services for households (Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), television services and video-on-demand, and high-speed Internet access).

    Third generation (3G) networks are the main mobile broadband technologies available today. In 2011, there were nearly three billion 3G subscriptions,* of which over 70 percent had peak download speeds of 7.2 Mbit/s or higher.* As the number of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) deployments grows, mobile users will be able to take advantage of the wide array of services available with fourth generation (4G) networks offering download speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s. Notably, LTE deployments are occurring at the fastest rate of any mobile technology ever, faster than both second generation (2G) and 3G networks.* For greater detail on the evolution of mobile broadband, as well as greater technical specifications of wireline broadband, see Chapter 5 of the Broadband Handbook and Module 2 of the Broadband Toolkit.