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Policy Considerations for Wired Broadband Connections

This is part of BPC’s ongoing series on broadband policy and the digital divide.

The President’s infrastructure plan and recent COVID relief funds have designated billions for connecting Americans to the internet. Covid-19 has only increased the need to address the digital divide. In March of 2020, as Americans shifted to remote work and education, the average daily broadband usage jumped 41% to 6.3 GB per user during office hours. Every month, American families use over 344 GB of data, roughly 38 times the rate they were using ten years ago.

Estimates indicate that over 19 million Americans do not have broadband access or are underserved in their internet connection. It is important to designate the differences between a wired broadband connection and a wireless broadband connection in looking at these issues. The “Last Mile Connection” determines the speed by which regions have access to the internet. This blog will talk specifically about the Last Mile wired connections and the speeds that they provide customers who use them. We hope that this information will help inform Congress and the public on their options for accessing high-speed internet and deciding how to allocate government broadband funds. We have also detailed the need for Congress to utilize wireless broadband connections.

Each of the technologies covered in this blog will have two speed ranges- the download and the upload speeds.

  • Download speeds indicate how fast data can be downloaded to a computer from the internet. Because downloading information to a computer has typically been the model needed to interact with the internet, these speeds are significantly higher than the upload speeds. To stream a YouTube clip in HD a device needs at least 5 Mbps.
  • Upload speeds have become a significant factor in modern internet applications because they impact the data sent to the network, including any video connections for remote education or work situations. In addition, cloud-based document editing with multiple users will also use a large percentage of a connection’s upload bandwidth.
  • Symmetrical upload and download times mean that data travels at the same speed in either direction. Proposals to “future-proof” broadband suggest high-speed symmetrical bandwidth.

Types of Wired Broadband

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL)- Download speeds-5-35 Megabits Per Second (Mbps); Upload speeds 1-10 Mbps

DSL transmits data over traditional copper telephone lines already installed to homes and businesses. It is typically considered the slowest of modern internet connections. DSL-based broadband provides internet transmission speeds ranging from 5 Mbps to 35 Mbps. In some cases, DSL can reach download speeds of over 100 Mbps. The availability and speed of DSL services depend on the distance from a home or business to the closest telephone company facility, making it a slower option for rural areas. For that reason, DSL providers do not guarantee the speeds that they advertise. The upload speeds of DSL are significantly lower than the alternative connections. They typically range between 1-10 Mbps.

Because DSL has been around the longest, it is the most available form of wired internet connection. Given the low upload speeds, DSL is sufficient for basic internet tasks, such as email and browsing, but not recommended for video conferencing or homes using multiple internet devices. Rural areas of the US will receive the lower end of the speed range, which is often insufficient for remote education or work situations.

Cable Modem- Download speeds: 10-500 Mbps; Upload Speeds 5-50 Mbps

Cable modem service enables cable operators to provide broadband using the same cables that deliver cable television. Download speeds typically range from 10-500 Mbps, with upload speeds typically between 5-50 Mbps. Cable speeds can improve once the industry implements the DOCSIS 3.1 and 4.0 standards, providing 10 Gbps download and 2 Gbps upload speeds. However, in general, cable speeds will slow down during peak use when other internet users in the geographic vicinity are also online. Transmission speeds can also vary depending on the type of cable modem and cable network. Cable connections are widely available throughout urban and suburban areas of the country.

Fiber-Optic- Download and Upload Speeds 250-1000 Mbps

Fiber internet connection offers the fastest wired connection on the market. Fiber typically has symmetrical upload and download speeds ranging from 250 to 1000 Mbps. The technology converts electronic signals into light, which it then transmits to a receiver in the home that converts it back into electronic signals. Unfortunately, fiber requires a dedicated line to be installed, making it expensive to install and for the consumer- and it is unavailable in most areas of the United States. Fiber offers the best option to future-proof broadband download speeds, but most Americans do not currently need those speeds.

Conclusion

Each of these connections has its benefits and drawbacks. For example, DSL is widely available but does not provide enough bandwidth for users to access remote resources such as Telehealth and education. Fiber has more than enough download and upload speeds but would very expensive to connect rural areas of the country. Cable modem connections seem to provide a middle ground but have lower upload speeds needed for working in cloud-based applications.

More Americans are connected to the internet, either through mobile or wired internet, than at any time in history. The determining factor for many of those connections is the speed at which they can download or upload data. Congress is looking at this speed question as an underlining social-economic issue because access to high-speed internet correlates with social mobility. Like other infrastructure projects, broadband requires continuing investment to ensure people and businesses can compete in a modernizing world.

We can “future-proof” broadband by investing in fiberoptic cable installation and upgrading cable-modem protocols. This hybrid approach involves upgrading cable internet connections and installing fiberoptics in areas that do not currently have access. It will require sustained funding with Bipartisan support in Congress and at the state level. BPC advocates that investment in broadband prioritizes areas currently underserved to avoid “over-building” networks that can beat the FCC’s definition of high-speed internet.

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