Is Broadband Definition Too Narrow?

Are you happy with your Internet connection? Chances are good that most of you reading this in the United States are quite satisfied with your connection to all that the World Wide Web has to offer. And yet, despite your personal satisfaction, there's been some debate among academic types over whether the U.S. is continuing to expand the reach and quality of broadband or falling behind in the bandwidth arms race.

On the bad news side, a study by the London Business School and consulting firm LECG gives the U.S. a 7.77 score on a connectivity scorecard, good for second place behind Sweden. (Is there anything the Swiss don't do well?) Second place sounds good, but it's the first time the U.S. has been out of the top spot since the study began in 2008.

On the plus side, an MIT study (PDF link) says that things aren't so bad when it comes to actual broadband speeds, and that the degradation in connection speed can be attributed to the devices inside the consumer's home--routers, PCs, and other net-connected devices--rather than the broadband infrastructure itself. My guess is the truth lies somewhere between the two reports.

Here's the rub: Are we defining broadband too narrowly? The MIT report seems to only include wired connections (DSL, cable, fiber) to the home while the LECG report includes some wireless metrics. But does it really matter how we're connected? Look at countries in Europe and Asia that seem to have skipped right over copper and headed straight into wireless broadband. They seem to be doing okay when it comes to getting online.

To me, it doesn't matter necessarily how people are getting connected as long as they're online. Speed is mostly irrelevant. Any of today's "broadband" options--be it DSL, cable, or through a cellular network--are fast enough for consumers and businesses to use email, participate in social media, and, most important, participate in commerce. Heck, if you believe the Verizon Wireless maps in its TV commercials (grain of salt, please), we all have at least 3G cellular broadband access.

What initiatives like the National Broadband Plan need to focus on is ensuring that those relatively small pockets without any access to broadband (imagine connecting through 56kpbs modem--the horror) get something, be it via a wire or the airwaves. Once everyone who wants to be connected is connected, we can focus on the speed arms race.

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2 Comments

  • Karen Ambrose Hickey

    My in-laws are in rural Louisiana and although computer-literate, their options are limited. So they've given up and it's really hard to keep in touch. I almost wish I had a dial-up number (but have most companies gotten rid of these because they aren't used?), just to get connected. I used to have to drive an hour to a coffee shop for Wi-Fi. On my most most recent trip, I had a MiFi, which got me connected after some driving, but that was only possible due to my business set-up; not what they, as consumers, had.
    (And yes - I did a double-take on that Swiss comment too!)