Definition of ‘broadband’ is too broad

There’s good news, and not-so-good news. The good news is the number of people accessing the network over broadband continues to increase. The not-so-good news is that the term “broadband” is so broad that it’s difficult to tell how good the good news really is.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project conducted a survey of adults in the United States to determine what percentage have made the transition from archaic dial-up Internet access to more modern broadband connections. The results are that broadband access has climbed to 70 percent, while dial-up remains steady at three percent.

Pew survey shows broadband use has climbed to a new high of 70 percent.

The problem is the things considered to be “broadband” cover a wide range of connection speeds. The actual survey question used by Pew was, “At home, do you connect to the Internet through a dial-up telephone line, or do you have some other type of connection, such as a DSL-enabled phone line, a cable TV modem, a wireless connection, or a fiber optic connection such as FIOS?”

Whether a home relies on a 3G wireless connection, a DSL connection, a cable modem connection, or happens to be lucky enough to live in an area served by Google Fiber, all these technologies are considered “broadband.” However, Google Fiber is thousands of times faster than some 3G wireless connections, so it’s a little silly to lump them together at all—never mind suggesting they’re all “high-speed broadband.”

It’s great to see the percentage using broadband continue to inch up, but it’s also a bit misleading to call everything that isn’t dial-up “high-speed broadband.” The National Broadband Plan put out by the FCC in 2010 set a bar that every household should have 4Mbps Internet access by 2020. Contrast that with South Korea, which established a goal to connect every home in the country with gigabit fiber connections by 2012.

broadband plan
The FCC set the bar very low with a goal of
4Mbps access by the year 2020.

Clearly, the U.S. definition of “high-speed” is different than many other developed nations. Sadly, though, as pathetic as 4Mbps is by global standards it’s still exponentially better than much of what we currently classify as “high-speed broadband.”

The difference is staggering, and it has a significant impact on other technologies, and whether or not businesses or consumers can take advantage of them. Consider the fact that it takes two and a half days to download a 5GB file over a 3G “high-speed broadband” connection, but less than a minute to download the same file over a gigabit fiber “high-speed broadband” connection. Would you rather be the business that can download and review a 5GB file over a cup of coffee, or the business that has to plan days in advance to download the file? Which business do you think has the strategic advantage?

We’ve reached a point where dial-up should no longer be considered part of the debate. It’s dead. Move on.

As long as we focus on “broadband vs. dial-up” and pat ourselves on the back for the increased use of “broadband”, we’re missing the bigger picture—and bigger problem—that the term “broadband” is too broad, and that we need to raise the bar of what’s considered adequate.

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