Broadband 101

What is broadband?

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"Broadband" commonly refers to high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access. The Federal Communications Commission defines basic broadband as transmission speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

Broadband is accessed through several different transmission technologies such as:

  • Digital subscriber lines (DSL), which transmit data to homes and businesses over traditional copper telephone lines that are already installed. Not all copper telephone lines, however, are capable of transmitting data as DSL.
  • Cable modems, which transmit data through the same coaxial cables that generate pictures and sounds on television sets
  • Fiber-optic cables, which convert electrical signals carrying data into light and send the light through transparent glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair. Fiber transmits data at speeds much faster than DSL and cable, typically tens and even hundreds of Mbps.
  • Fixed wireless, which involves the wireless transmission of data from a local antenna to a permanent location such as a home or business. The service is similar to what is delivered over DSL or a cable modem, but the transmission is wireless.
  • Mobile wireless, which connects users in temporary locations such as coffee shops. Mobile broadband is transmitted through technologies such as portable modems and mobile phones.
  • Satellite, which is another form of wireless and is useful for serving remote or sparsely populated areas.

Use the Colorado Broadband Map to find broadband service providers in Colorado. 

The Federal Communications Commission defines basic broadband as transmission speeds of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

Download speed is how quickly information travels from the internet to your device and appears on the screen. For example, Netflix uses about 5 Mbps to stream a movie, so if your speeds are less than 5 Mbps, the movie will likely stop and buffer.

Upload speed is how quickly information travels from your device to the internet. For example, uploading pictures to an online album will be limited by the upload speed. If you have a 5 Mbps upload connection, it would take about three minutes to upload 20 pictures. A 1.5 Mbps upload connection would increase that time to over eight minutes.

Mbps stands for “Megabits per second.” This is the standard measure of speed or bandwidth on home internet connections. It measures how many bits (units of digital information) can be transferred each second. Internet services are most often listed in Mbps, but you will also hear about Kbps or Gbps. Here’s how these terms relate to each other:

  • Kilobit – One kilobit is equal to 1,000 bits per second (Kbps)
  • Megabit – One megabit is equal to 1,000 Kbps or one million bits per second (Mbps)
  • Gigabit – One gigabit is equal to 1,000 Mbps, one million Kbps or one billion bits per second (Gbps)

Why do Upload and Download Speed Matter?

If your service is not fast enough for the type of activity you are trying to do on the internet, you may experience dropped connections, buffering or the inability to complete your tasks. Imagine you just completed a homework assignment and are unable to upload it in time to meet the deadline.

For interactive learning: two-way video calls requires upload and download at the same time, meaning you would need about 3 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload for a good connection. 

What are Data Caps and why do they matter?

Internet data caps are monthly limits on the amount of data you can use over your internet connection. When you hit that limit, there can be a variety of consequences based on your service contract. This can include:

  • Overage Fees
  • Slowing down data speeds
  • Disconnecting service

Data caps include both upload and download data. That means when you are doing an activity like video conferencing, you are are uploading and downloading simultaneously, and data from both upload and download gets added to you data usage number.

Caps are most common for mobile data service, but are also imposed by many “fixed” internet providers (meaning the connection to your home from the phone or cable company). Mobile data caps are often much lower than home internet services – think of 10 GB per month for mobile service versus 1,000 GB per month for fixed service.

It’s important to know if you have a data cap and what happens when you reach it. Ask your Internet Service Provider or mobile/cellular carrier if your service contract includes data caps, and, if so, what will happen if your data usage exceeds the data cap.

Why is broadband important?

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Broadband enables people to access to basic amenities such as education, health care, public safety and government services. As the technology supporting broadband connectivity continues to grow, so do the benefits of getting connected. Here are some examples of the impact of broadband connectivity.

Broadband enables local communities, regions and states to develop, attract, retain and expand job-creating businesses and institutions. It also improves the productivity and profitability of large, small and home-based businesses and allows them to compete in local, national and global markets. It increases quality of life, remote services and opportunities, and provides resiliency and future growth opportunities for the community. Broadband enables opportunities for remote work, allowing workers to live and work in locations of their own choosing.

Broadband is critical for workforce development and retention. According to Pew Research Center, lack of broadband can be a key obstacle for job seekers

Broadband helps government agencies improve quality, lower costs and increase transparency by improving internal operations and making it easier for residents to interact with them online. This can include a wide range of support services and civic engagement.

Broadband enables students of all ages to participate in educational opportunities. Broadband allows students and teachers to expand instruction beyond the confines of the physical classroom and traditional school day and can provide more customized learning opportunities. (U.S. Department of Education)

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the "homework gap" and the importance of broadband access for students to participate in remote learning. When the pandemic began, 15-16 million K-12 students did not have adequate access to the internet. Up to up to 12 million students remain under-connected. (Common Sense Media)

Broadband is essential for health care providers to provide cost-effective access to quality health care. Broadband enables telehealth, which can include video visits, online communication, and remote patient monitoring. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) Broadband also enables the electronic exchange of health care information.

Broadband is also critical for patients accessing telehealth services. Telehealth services administered by health care providers are inaccessible by patients who do not have access to broadband in their homes.

The public safety sector relies on broadband for mission critical communications, real-time information transfer, disaster response, and interoperability of police, fire, emergency medical services and other government entities. Broadband infrastructure supports 9-1-1 systems, early warning and public alert systems, disaster preparation programs, remote security monitoring and backup systems for public safety communications networks.