In the United States, over 115 million households subscribe to a broadband internet service. This high adoption rate has greatly improved the way people communicate, work, and access information – however, internet performance can vary greatly depending on the type of broadband connection used.
Broadband provides a reliable internet connection and is a high-speed data transmission medium for homes and businesses. Internet services are delivered using multiple technologies, with the most common types of broadband connection being cable, fiber optic, DSL, fixed wireless, and satellite.
Dgtl Infra provides a comprehensive overview of broadband internet, defining and explaining what the technology is and does. Additionally, we evaluate two key performance indicators of a broadband connection, namely bandwidth and latency. Finally, Dgtl Infra distinguishes between the major types of broadband connections and the main advantages of broadband internet service.
What is Broadband Internet?
Broadband internet connections deliver high-speed access to a wide range of online services, including e-mail, streaming videos, online gaming, social media, videoconferencing, e-commerce, news, e-learning, job hunting, telemedicine, and more.
The word broadband itself is the amalgamation of two words: “broad” and “bandwidth”, which in simple terms, means thicker cables are being used for an internet connection, to deliver faster speeds.
In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet as having a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.
What is a Broadband Connection?
Broadband is a communications transmission medium with wide bandwidth characteristics that can be divided into multiple segments, which can transport a variety of signals and traffic types simultaneously. Beyond internet access, broadband can also be used to deliver telephone (voice) and television (video) services all on the same connection – hence the technologies Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet Protocol television (IPTV), which are defined as follows:
- VoIP: allows voice calls to be made using a broadband internet connection instead of an analog phone line
- IPTV: allows video content to be distributed using a broadband internet connection instead of over analog cable TV signals, airwaves (using broadcast towers and antennas), or via a satellite dish
Still, the most common definition of a broadband connection specifically refers to high-speed internet access and, as such, that is the focus of this article. Key characteristics of a broadband connection are fast speeds, high bandwidth, and low latency, all of which are detailed next:
How is Broadband Internet Speed Measured?
Broadband internet access speeds and bandwidth are measured in bits per second (bps), while file sizes are measured in bytes – there are 8 bits (b) in 1 byte (B). Importantly, the kilo (K), mega (M), giga (G), and tera (T) prefixes vary slightly when applied to bits and bytes. For bits, these prefixes represent even powers of 10 (e.g., 1,000), but when applied to bytes, they represent powers of 2 (e.g., 1,024).
At present, speeds of internet access are typically measured in terms of megabits per second (Mbps) and gigabits per second (Gbps). These measures refer to the amount of data that can be transferred over an internet connection in a given timeframe.
Differences between bits and bytes is important to understand because the unit of measurement used can affect the perceived speed of an internet connection. For example, a broadband internet provider might advertise a high-speed connection of “200 Mbps”. However, if a customer does not understand that “Mbps” stands for “megabits per second” and not “megabytes per second”, they might expect their internet connection to be able to download a large file in just a few seconds, when in reality it would take substantially longer, because there are 8 bits in a byte.
What is Latency in Broadband Internet?
Broadband internet network latency refers to the amount of time it takes for a single data packet to travel from one point to another (e.g., origin to destination) and is typically quantified in milliseconds (ms), meaning thousandths of a second. One common measure of latency is ping time, which is the time for a networking packet to travel to and return from a specified location (i.e., round-trip). Most forms of broadband access produce ping times to the internet service provider (ISP) of 10 ms to 100 ms.
For real-time, bidirectional communications, such as multi-player online games (e.g., Fortnite or Call of Duty), latency is a critical feature of broadband internet performance. If a user’s network has high latencies, their instantaneous response to the other players in an online game may reach the game server after the server has recorded their opponent’s actions. In effect, the game would seem slow to respond to this high-latency user’s commands.
Additionally, high latency can subtly degrade a user’s internet browsing experience. More specifically, web pages typically consist of a main document and multiple supporting files such as graphics, videos, and other documents. Once the main page is retrieved, separate requests must be made for each supporting file. If latencies are high, noticeable delays between these requests can cause the overall web page to load slowly, even if individual graphics load quickly.
Do Multiple Users Using the Internet Affect Speed?
Homes and businesses routinely have more than one computer or connected device (e.g., smartphone) sharing a broadband internet connection, which impacts speed. For example, if four individuals are trying to share a 200 Mbps connection, each user experiences speeds closer to a 50 Mbps connection.
Although higher broadband speeds (e.g., 1 Gbps) make sharing a broadband internet connection less noticeable, the shared bandwidth experience is still present. Ultimately, the more users and devices on a network, the slower and more congested it can become.
Types of Broadband Connections
Broadband internet is delivered through several different technologies, including cable, fiber optic, DSL (digital subscriber line), fixed wireless, and satellite, which each have their own unique characteristics. Importantly, each of these technologies meet the definition of “broadband” because they enable multiple signals to be transmitted to a user’s home or business.
Cable operators use a hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) network to deliver broadband internet connectivity, as well as their television (video) services.
In an HFC network, the backbone cable leaving the “headend” (distribution facility) is a fiber optic cable, which links to a smaller coaxial network near the homes of subscribers, at locations known as “fiber nodes”. The fiber optic portion of the network is for long runs, whereas the coaxial part of the network is for short stretches of cables that are typically less than a mile.
Presently, cable operators deploy broadband services primarily using DOCSIS 3.0 and 3.1 standards, through which they offer download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), but upload speeds of only 35 to 50 Mbps. Even faster speeds are forthcoming, with DOCSIS 4.0 being deployed by major cable operators starting in 2023.
READ MORE: DOCSIS 4.0 – Next-Generation Cable Networks
2) Fiber Optic
Fiber optic broadband internet access uses full fiber optic cable, all the way from a telecommunications provider’s central office (CO), into neighborhoods, and then into individual homes and businesses. The fiber optic cable leaving the central office links to an optical splitter, which divides the single incoming optical signal into multiple outgoing signals – enabling its distribution to multiple premises. Subsequently, the distribution network continues onwards to the homes of subscribers via fiber optic cable, where it connects to an optical network terminal (ONT) located inside or outside of the customer’s home or business.
This end-to-end fiber network uses passive optical network (PON) transmission technology and is commonly referred to as fiber to the home (FTTH).
Fiber optic services deliver symmetrical download and upload speeds, meaning they are equally as fast. Many providers are currently offering speeds of 1 Gbps and 2 Gbps, with some companies delivering up to 10 Gbps service to customers.
READ MORE: Fiber to the Home (FTTH) vs FTTP, FTTN, FTTC, and FTTB
Aside from fiber optic, all of the other types of broadband are asymmetrical, meaning their downstream and upstream capacities differ, which from a consumer’s perspective, results in fast download speeds but slow upload speeds. Given that fiber optic services are symmetrical, they can deliver fast upload speeds as well, which are important for gaming, live streaming, videoconferencing, telehealth, distance learning, and more.
READ MORE: Upload Speed – Demand Grows as New Use Cases Evolve
3) Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)
Digital subscriber line (DSL) uses copper telephone wires to transmit data and deliver broadband internet connectivity to homes and businesses. DSL technology comes in a wide variety of forms, with common variants being ADSL (Asymmetric DSL) and VDSL (Very High Bit-Rate DSL).
DSL is the slowest type of broadband internet, with ADSL and VDSL technology offering download speeds of only 3 megabits per second (Mbps) to 100 Mbps and upload speeds of only 512 Kbps to 10 Mbps. Thus, DSL is only a faster connectivity option than legacy dial-up internet.
Notably, DSL speeds are also influenced by the proximity of a home or business to the nearest telecommunications provider’s central office (CO).
4) Fixed Wireless
Fixed wireless is a land-based wireless broadband service which connects fixed locations, such as homes and businesses, to the internet using radio waves. Broadband internet connectivity is delivered via the transmission of radio signals from base stations / ground-based transmitters, which are mounted at high elevations on communications towers, tall buildings, or hills. These wireless transmitters often require a direct line-of-sight to a customer’s antenna / receiver, which receives and processes the radio signals.
Fixed wireless technologies utilize both licensed and unlicensed spectrum to deliver high-speed data and internet services over wireless devices. For example, licensed frequencies include the 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 1900 MHz, 2.5 GHz, and 24 GHz ranges. While unlicensed spectrum involves the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
On average, fixed wireless internet delivers download speeds ranging from 100 Mbps to 400 Mbps and upload speeds between 10 Mbps and 50 Mbps.
READ MORE: Fixed Wireless Internet – a Broadband Alternative Emerges
Satellite-based broadband is a system where the content provider beams a radio signal to a satellite, which bounces the radio signal back to Earth, where it can be received by subscribers through an antenna. Typically, satellites transmit and receive signals in the microwave frequency range (e.g., Ka and Ku frequency bands) for broadband communications.
Many classifications of satellites exist, but for the purposes of broadband, there are two basic types of satellites: geostationary orbit (GEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) systems.
- GEO: satellites orbit at a significant distance to Earth. Customers can point an antenna at a fixed location in the sky, primarily relying on one satellite, to receive signals from the satellite or to send signals to the satellite. Examples of GEO satellite broadband providers are HughesNet and Viasat
- LEO: satellites occupy lower orbits, much closer to Earth. Therefore, LEO communication systems require tens or hundreds of satellites to cover a particular geographical area, such that at least one satellite will be above a customer at any given moment. An example of a LEO satellite broadband provider is Starlink
Satellite broadband internet delivers download speeds of 12 Mbps to 100 Mbps and upload speeds of only 3 Mbps, which is relatively slow as compared to the other types of broadband connections. However, broadband internet connectivity provided by satellites is often the only option in rural or remote areas because of the lack of infrastructure for alternatives like wired or land-based wireless broadband (e.g., fixed wireless).
READ MORE: Rural Internet – Broadband Options and Providers
Advantages of Broadband Internet Service
The advantages of broadband internet service, over legacy dial-up internet and other analog communication methods, are fast speeds and high bandwidth, Internet Protocol television (IPTV), Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and ‘always-up’ internet.
- Fast Speeds and High Bandwidth: enables more bandwidth-intensive online services, such as streaming videos, online gaming, videoconferencing, e-learning, telemedicine, file hosting/sharing, cloud computing, and more
- Internet Protocol Television (IPTV): internet-based delivery of video content offers superior picture quality (clearer, more detailed, and smoother), a larger choice of content, and better on-demand viewing options
- Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP): internet-based delivery of voice services enables customers to receive calls from anywhere with broadband internet access, provides more advanced features (e.g., conference calling), and can often be less expensive than traditional phone systems
- ‘Always-Up’ Internet: continuous, uninterrupted connection to the internet, as opposed to legacy dial-up, which creates a delay while waiting for a connection to the internet to be established using a telephone line
READ MORE: Top 125 Internet Providers in the U.S. for Fiber and Cable