24 Jun 2002
Simply finding consensus in what we mean when we say broadband is difficult, as there is little definitional agreement amongst ICT specialists, researchers, policy makers, and industry. For the purposes of this inquiry, we will adopt the US Federal Communications Commission’s criteria and take broadband to indicate bandwidth provision of always-on Internet access to end users at anything exceeding a rate of 200 Kilobits per second (200 Kbps), which seems to be the minimum speed understood worldwide to constitute broadband connectivity. Note however that broadband speeds in places such as Sweden can reach 10 Megabits per second (10 Mbps).
To place this in some context, most modern dial-up modems connect to the Internet at speeds that top out at 56 Kbps. This type of connection is also known as ‘narrowband’, which is broadband’s opposite. Broadband connectivity requires special equipment on the part of both the end user and the Internet Service Provider (ISP). The consumer is required to purchase a modem that operates at broadband speeds, while the ISP needs to arrange for the consumer to be linked into a conduit (copper telephone line, fibre optic cable, satellite) system that allows for high bandwidth transmission of data.
Delivery of Access
Typically, broadband is sold to consumers in tandem with other media services. The main providers of broadband and the access they provide can therefore be generally categorised as one of the following types:
- Telephone-based xDSL: The conduit in this case is simple twisted-pair copper telephone wire, which can either be pre-existing or can be specially installed. The user’s telephone line is split into two frequency ranges so that voice can be transmitted over one range and data over the other. Given the history of telecommunications service provision, these copper wires are very often owned by large telephone companies, some of whom are still partially state-owned and managed.
xDSL is a catch-all that most often is used to indicate either asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) services that allow end users to receive data (downstream) at speeds faster than they can send data (upstream), or symmetric digital subscriber line (SDSL) services that allow equivalent downstream and upstream speeds.
Users of xDSL must live within a minimum radius of between 3.5- 5.5 km of a telephone exchange in order to allow for high speed connections to be run through their copper telephone lines. This is an issue of particular concern in rural areas that may not be near enough to a telephone exchange point to support xDSL.
- Cable-based Internet: This sort of connectivity relies upon the pay television infrastructure to deliver broadband access. Much of the cable originally installed to provide premium television services possesses the capacity to deliver broadband Internet access, positioning cable television providers as potential ISPs.
Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) has become the dominant communications protocol for cable modems. Theoretically, using this protocol should allow users to purchase any cable modem and use it with any DOCSIS-compliant service provider.
- Satellite-based Internet: Making use of the transmission capacity of satellite broadcasting, this technology delivers content downstream from orbiting satellites and can return data upstream either via a return signal from a transmitting satellite dish or via a telephone line. Because the downstream signal comes directly from a satellite and not from a telephone or cable hub, satellite connectivity holds great promise for geographically isolated users. The reliance on a telephone line return path remains a problem, especially in countries where data transmission over publicly owned airwaves is tightly regulated by government.
- Wireless Internet: Variously encompassing higher bandwidth connectivity protocols such as IEEE 802.11, WiFi, and 3G, this sort of high speed access requires that users possess a modem card that receives and transmits its signals over a spread spectrum of frequencies. Users can access the Internet wirelessly when they are within range of an access point’s antenna. This range varies from tens of metres to more than 4 kilometres, depending on the type of antenna used at the access point.
Users can create their own wireless base stations by attaching transmission base stations to their broadband conduit, thus allowing them to move about, connected, within the signal’s reach. This is commonly done to create instant, wireless networks in homes and businesses alike. Recently, a grassroots movement to provide open access to the Internet has begun to garner quite a bit of momentum, with participating users sharing their own broadband with any and all other users who move within the range of their signal.
Central to the discussion of broadband is its availability to and use by the public. What is possible and what has already been done to exploit high bandwidth access to the Internet are enormously important concerns, ones that we seek to explore with this investigation. We do not attempt to define the term ‘public broadband’ in any narrow sense-rather, this project takes as its focal point the complex intersections of technology, economics, public interest, policy, business, and education.
Such wide-ranging interests are also reflected in the approach taken to soliciting evidence from experts. We have sought out individuals with an ecumenical array of interests, specialisations, agendas, and perspectives, in hopes that the evidence submitted will yield a rich balance of information.
What follows is a list of questions that should serve to prompt thinking about the issues that inhere in such a multifaceted topic. They are clearly not the only important questions, and should be taken simply as starting points for thoughtful discussion. If there are other issues of particular concern, we welcome new information about these and will seek to incorporate it into our analysis.
1. How should we define and characterise broadband? Moreover, what is public broadband and who should contribute to its discourse?
2. Should we take as given that public take-up of broadband should be encouraged? What are the particular benefits broadband would bring to your area of expertise? What about costs (at all levels) that widespread adoption of this new technology entails?
3. How should access penetration and uptake be measured, in the absence of a standardised metric?
4. Are current movements such as grassroots wireless bandwidth sharing likely to change public access and provision of broadband services?
5. Can the provision of broadband to/from the private sector be uncoupled from public sector access issues? What are the particular sticking points that make this issue such a complex hybrid?
6. How long is broadband (as it is variously defined) likely to persist? Should substantial effort be focussed elsewhere to avoid too much investment in an intermediate-stage technology?
7. What difficulties exist and have existed in increasing uptake of broadband services? Can any of these be generalised and used to inform future efforts, both around broadband and other technologies?
8. With vertical integration of content and bandwidth, do broadband providers find themselves in the position of shaping consumer behaviour online? Is this desirable from a public interest/business/infrastructure standpoint? How might anticompetitive practices influence the expansion of access, as well as future iterations of technology?
9. How does newer, faster, less-tethered technology (IEEE 802.11, WiFi, 3G) alter the current debate about broadband?
10. Is an open access model of content/conduit provision more likely to succeed in making broadband more compelling to end users? (cf. Transact Communications in Australia).
11. Rural regions that are located beyond the reach of telephone-line access to xDSL services, or that are underserved by high-quality cable face a unique problem: even willing communities that want high-speed access and can afford it may not be able to obtain broadband services for at least one more generation of technology. What particular issues are raised by the disparity this fosters? What stopgap solutions exist?
12. In a market environment where as many as 75% of users report satisfaction with their current dial-up connection speeds (Parks Associates study, 11/01), what can be done to increase uptake of broadband? What are the consequences of not improving end-user bandwidth provision?
13. What responsibilities does a government have to making sure that its citizenry is able to obtain and afford broadband access?
14. Is there a critical point of uptake at which users will feel compelled to abandon slower, narrowband access? If this is the case, what services might disappear with more widespread broadband adoption? What new services will emerge/ gain popularity?
15. If xDSL systems are the most popular mode of delivery of broadband service, is the telephone company that installed the copper wiring responsible for upkeep and repairs, even in the face of such unforeseen infrastructure usage?
16. What ownership issues exist around ownership and sharing of telephone lines? Is local loop unbundling and co-location of third party routing equipment at exchanges unrealistic? What about fixed-cost sharing amongst cable providers and ISPs, as well as open access to cable infrastructure?
17. How much price reduction in the form of discounted hardware sold as a loss-leader is tenable in a sector that is already struggling? What protections exist to keep broadband providers solvent while their customer base grows to a self-sustaining size?
18. What role(s) should the state play regulating broadband conduits? How should privatised telecommunications provision be regulated so as to encourage broadband uptake?
19. Should limits and/or tariffs be placed on content streams? If so, which kinds of content are most readily regulated?
20. What remains to be done to achieve the UK Government’s goal of being the G7’s most competitive broadband market by 2005? Who gauges competitiveness, and by what metrics? How much of a priority is this commitment?
21. How can the OECD’s recommendation that competition be used as a driving force to foster expansion of broadband connectivity be implemented?
22. How can the work of independent regulators like Oftel and Ofcom be used to provide a counterpoint to broadband market regulation? Are regulation and the fostering of market competition mutually exclusive?
23. Does broadband offer new opportunities for political transparency? How can high-speed connectivity be exploited in the service of providing easy access to public documents?
24. Can broadband technology improve corporate and organisational transparency? If so, how?
25. What new issues around privacy become germane with public access to high bandwidth connectivity?
26. What are the costs and benefits of utilising broadband technology to improve dialogue between constituencies and policy-makers?
Public Services Questions
27. Can and should public gathering places such as libraries and community centres provide access to high-speed Internet? What advantages accrue to those that do? Why do they not (by and large) do so already?
28. How do public service organisations like the NHS and the DHSS benefit from expanded broadband access? Is there an additional improvement to the organisation-public interface when high-speed connectivity is more ubiquitous?
29. Can broadband be used as a tool to improve voter participation at local and national levels? Authentication and privacy are of utmost concern in changing election systems – how can high bandwidth be exploited to overcome practical difficulties in holding distributed elections? Are there further psephological difficulties?
30. What role should advocacy groups like the Broadband Britain Committee and the Broadband Stakeholder Group play in encouraging public and private sector uptake of broadband?
31. How might improved connectivity benefit processes of teaching and learning in classrooms? What new training opportunities become possible with broadband access that were problematic or nonexistent with slower dial-up access?
32. How might schools, colleges, and universities benefit from improved connectivity in terms of internal and local administration, professional co-operation, and communication with users and stakeholders?
33. Does the development and expansion of distance learning depend on the uptake of end-user broadband connectivity?