What Is Broadband?

Broadband refers to various high-capacity transmission technologies that are used to transmit data, voice, and video across long distances and at high speeds. Common mediums of transmission include coaxial cable, fiber optic cable, and radio waves.

Key Takeaways

  • The term broadband is used to describe high-speed and high-bandwidth communication infrastructure.
  • It is commonly used in relation to high-speed Internet services, which have become increasingly important both to consumers and governments.
  • Today, the availability of broadband is highly concentrated in a small number of developed countries. However, new innovations in satellite-based broadband services could potentially broaden the scope of access throughout the world.

How Broadband Works

Today, discussion of broadband often centers on its use to provide high-speed Internet access. Historically, broadband Internet was defined as being faster than traditional dial-up internet connection. However, it is now common for more precise definitions to be required. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in 2015 that, in order to be considered broadband Internet, the service must offer download and upload speeds of at least 25 and 3 megabits, respectively.

In general, however, the two defining characteristics of broadband are that it is high-speed and available at all times. Both of these characteristics serve to distinguish broadband from the older dial-up connections. Not only was dial-up Internet connection slower, but it was only available when specifically requested by the user. 

Because of its clear advantages over dial-up services, broadband Internet access is preferred by both end-users and governments. Despite its widespread appeal, access to the high-bandwidth access that broadband provides is highly concentrated in just a few countries. In 1986, for instance, the United States was home to nearly 30% of global bandwidth, due in large part to its investments in broadband infrastructure. 

By 2004, the United States’ share of global bandwidth had fallen to just under 20%, due in large part to new infrastructure investments by China. Likewise, this trend has continued through 2014, by which time China’s share of global bandwidth had grown to about 30%, as compared to roughly 15% for the United States. 

Other Asian countries, specifically Japan and South Korea, have seen tremendous improvements in recent decades with developing access to broadband Internet. Yet altogether, the world remains highly polarized in this regard, with the 10 leading countries possessing nearly 75% of global high-bandwidth infrastructure.

Example of Broadband

One emerging frontier of broadband transmission technology involves the use of advanced satellite networks to provide Internet access without the need for large-scale investments in terrestrial infrastructure.

A notable example of this emerging approach is the Starlink Project currently being pursued by the private space-exploration and development company, SpaceX. Through this project, SpaceX founder Elon Musk aims to launch an unprecedented array of 12,000 satellites designed to work in tandem to provide high-speed satellite Internet access to users throughout the world.

As of November 2019, roughly 120 satellites have been deployed by SpaceX under this new program. However, the company estimates that in the long-term the project could entail the launch of up to 42,000 satellites. If successful, the stated aim of the project is to provide low-cost broadband Internet services to users throughout the world, potentially undercutting ground-based telecommunications providers in the process.