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Chapter Highlights from ITU Internet Reports 2003:Birth of Broadband

Chapter Two:  Broadband Technologies

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“The term “broadband” is like a moving target. Internet access speeds are increasing all the time. As technology improves, even ITU’s recommended speeds will soon be considered too slow.”

Although most people have heard of broadband, few know exactly how they might define it. Broadband is often associated with a particular speed or set of services, but in reality the term “broadband” is like a moving target. Internet access speeds are increasing all the time. One can therefore only really talk about the “current” state of broadband, and make tentative extrapolations, based on planned or incipient developments, that may or may not come to fruition in the future.

Broadband is commonly used to describe recent Internet connections that are significantly faster than today’s dial-up technologies, but it is not a specific speed or service. Recommendation I.113 of the ITU Standardization Sector defines broadband as a transmission capacity that is faster than primary rate ISDN, at 1.5 or 2.0 Mbit/s. Elsewhere, broadband is considered to correspond to transmission speeds equal to or greater than 256 kbit/s, and some operators even label basic rate ISDN (at 144 kbit/s) as a “type of broadband”. In this report, while not defining broadband specifically, 256 kbit/s is generally taken as the minimum speed.

The real gift of broadband is the greater scope it provides for developing applications and services, whether by enhancing existing ones, or enabling new ones. The availability of broadband depends primarily on existing networks, which vary according to the legacy infrastructure. For developed countries and urban areas for example, wireline technologies, based around twisted pair or coaxial cable, are already in place. In developing countries and rural areas, other newer technologies, based around wireless or satellite, may be more practical and cost-effective. Fibre offers the best possibilities for the longer term. Cultural, political, geographical, economic or other factors also play an important role, as do the regulatory framework and the supporting institutional arrangements.

Wired connections account for the vast majority (over 98 per cent) of current connections—although wireless technologies are starting to grow quickly. Of the fixed-line connections, digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable modem technologies are the most popular (see Figure 2, top chart). Until 2000, the majority of broadband users were using cable modems, and this is still the most popular form of access in North America. But worldwide, ADSL now accounts for more than half the connections, being particularly popular in Asia and Western Europe.

Where fixed-line connections are not so readily available or convenient to use, a number of wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi have been gaining in popularity too. While the full Birth of Broadband Report describes each of these wired and wireless technologies in detail, an overview of the different characteristics of the main technologies are given in the table in Figure 2

Figure 2: Broadband technologies

Penetration by technology

Various broadband technologies, summary

Source: ITU.


Relevant links

ITU New Initiatives workshop on Promoting Broadband 

ITU-T Recommendations 

ITU Radiocommunication Sector   

ITU Trends in Telecommunication Reform: Promoting Universal Access to ICTs - Practical Tools for Regulators  

DSL Forum

WiMax Forum

Wi-Fi Alliance  

Lonestar Broadband 


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