Calling for a broadband primer

The term "broadband" applies to the bandwidth of a medium. The bandwidth of copper wire depends upon distance, and over short lengths, copper wire (such as twisted pair) has bandwidth in the mega Hertz.

All media are analog - it is the nature of the signals carried that determines analog or digital coding. The terms bandwidth should probably be expressed in Hertz (cycles per second), but in the digital world, the rate (or speed) of transmission is expressed in bits per second (bps), or bytes per second (Bps).

At one time, high-speed would have been 50 kbps. Today, high speed is in the order of 10 Mbps. Some believe 1 Gbps will be offered soon.

OECD data implies that the U.S. is far behind other industrialized nations in broadband. But more than 95 percent of homes in the U.S. are passed by coaxial cable - a broadband medium capable of easily providing Internet access speeds of 10 Mbps.

However, a substantial number of consumers in the U.S. still do not have Internet access. This could be because they simply do not want it, but it also could be because they cannot afford it.

The telephone companies offer Internet access over either twisted pairs of copper wire or optical fiber. Dial-up (at maximum speeds of 56 Kbps) is available everywhere. DSL over twisted pair offers speeds of about 1 Mbps, while optical fiber offers at least 10 Mbps.

The Cable MSOs have cable modems that offer speeds as high as 10 Mbps, although this capacity is shared by a number of homes. This has not been a problem since most data traffic consists of short bursts. The Cable MSO can allocate more bandwidth on the cable to offer higher speeds.

It would be nice to have clean data showing, over time, the percent of homes that do not have Internet access, along with a breakdown of why not: Is it unavailable  in their area, do they not want it, or can they not afford it?

For the three telco access means (dial-up, DSL, fiber), it would be nice to have data over time showing the number and percent of lines for each, along with the average/median and range of access speeds. For cable, the number and percent of homes passed along with the number and percent with Internet access would be helpful, along with similar statistics on speeds.

Satellite is yet another way to get Internet access. U.S. data should be determined, but my guess is that it is very insignificant. Satellites are not very appropriate for Internet access because of the delay (latency) for the communication. But this is a way to reach otherwise inaccessible locations.

A. Michael Noll is Professor Emeritus of Communications at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. His book "Highway of Dreams," published in 1997 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, is a critical view of the information superhighway of the 1990s.