ITU Home Page International Telecommunication Union Français | Español 
Print Version 
ITU Home Page
Home : Office of the Secretary-General : CSD
Birth of Broadband - Frequently Asked Questions

Media Fact Sheet

International Telecommunication Union
September 2003

Telephone: +41 22 730 6039
Fax: +41 22 730 5939

Español   Français  

The Birth of Broadband

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is broadband?

A. Many people associate broadband with a particular speed of transmission or a certain set of services, such as digital subscriber loop (DSL) or wireless local area networks (wLANs). However, since broadband technologies are always changing, the definition of broadband also continues to evolve. Today, the term broadband typically describes recent Internet connections that range from 5 times to 2000 times faster than earlier Internet dial-up technologies. However, the term broadband does not refer to either a certain speed or a specific service. Broadband combines connection capacity (bandwidth) and speed. Recommendation I.113 of the ITU Standardization Sector defines broadband as a “transmission capacity that is faster than primary rate Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) at 1.5 or 2.0 Megabits per second (Mbits)”.

Q. What are the main benefits of broadband?

A. Broadband has three main benefits:

1.      Broadband speeds are significantly faster than previous technologies, making it faster and more convenient to access information or conduct online transactions using the Internet. The speed of broadband service has also enhanced existing services, such as online gaming, and enabled new applications, such as downloading music and videos.

2.      Depending on the type of technology deployed, there can be economic gains associated with broadband. For example, with DSL, users can use a single standard phone line for both voice and data services. This enables them to surf the Internet and call a friend at the same time—all using the same phone line. Previously, avid Internet users may have installed an extra phone line in their homes for Internet access; but with broadband, two phone lines are no longer necessary.

3.      Broadband enhances existing Internet applications, while paving the way for new solutions, which were too expensive, inefficient or slow to consider in the past. This may include everything from new e-government services, such as electronic tax filing, to online health care services, e-learning and increased levels of electronic commerce.

Q. How do people use broadband?

A. Broadband changes user habits, for instance, by encouraging ‘always on’ use and positioning the home computer as a multimedia entertainment device. The most popular consumer broadband applications today are faster web surfing, games and file sharing. With the advent of broadband and its faster, dedicated connections, ITU anticipates further development of Internet services, in the areas of web surfing, instant messaging, file sharing, e-commerce and e-mail. In addition broadband opens the path to the development of interactive applications, virtual reality and other high-quality, bandwidth-hungry digital services.

Q. What’s the profile of a typical broadband user?

A. Consumer broadband users tend to be young and highly educated. However, for broadband to go mass market, the user profile will need to broaden, with services developed for and marketed at business users. For small and medium-sized businesses in particular, broadband brings the advantages of high-speed, high-capacity communications that may have not been affordable before. However, even larger businesses may start to shift to broadband, which could reduce costs one hundred fold, as compared to some of today’s private corporate networks.

It is important to note that prices play a vital role in both consumer and business decisions to adopt broadband. Economies with high broadband penetrations are typically characterized by low prices—usually as a result of flourishing competition and innovative pricing schemes that attract a wide variety of customers.

Q. What types of technology are considered broadband technology?

A. Some of the most common types of broadband technology are:

Digital subscriber lines (DSL): The most common broadband platform in the world today is DSL. DSL uses different frequencies to split voice and data services using the same standard phone line. This means users have the ability to surf the Internet and talk on the phone at the same time, using just one phone line. Like all broadband technologies, DSL offers higher speeds and greater quality when transmitting voice, data and images. DSL is a dedicated service, where each user essentially has his or her own private circuit to the central telephone office. This means bandwidth and service speeds do not vary based on the number of subscribers in a particular area.

Cable modems: Cable modems are also a popular broadband technology and have flourished in economies with developed cable TV networks. Cable networks are capable of carrying different “channels” along the same physical cable. Originally, these channels carried different television channels. Now, in addition to these television channels, one channel sends data to users from the Internet and another channel sends data from users back to the Internet.The main difference between DSL and cable is that all cable modem subscribers in a small area share the same channels to send and receive data. As a result, the amount of bandwidth and the resulting service speeds each user experiences depend on how much bandwidth neighbours are using at the same time.

Fibre optic cable: Unlike DSL and cable technologies, which are both based on copper wire, fibre optic cable uses lasers to transmit pulses of light down extremely fine strands of silicon. Because light uses higher frequencies, fibre optic cable can carry thousands of times more data than either electric signal or radio waves. Fibre optics can theoretically provide nearly unlimited bandwidth potential, so this solution is often used for either high bandwidth connections between cities or heavy bandwidth areas within cities. The cost of installing the fibre optic cables previously made it prohibitive for connecting small communities or homes, but prices have fallen to the point that in several economies, users can now connect to the Internet via fibre optic cable at speeds 20 times greater than the fastest DSL and cable modem connections. Several governments are gradually laying fibre infrastructure to have it ready when it finally becomes cost effective to install the connections and “light up” fibre to the home. This includes countries such as Korea (Rep. of), Iceland, Japan, Singapore and Sweden.

Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) and Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi): WLANs are local area networks that use electromagnetic waves to transmit and receive data over short distances, instead of using wireline networks. Mobile devices access the network by connecting, via radio, to a wireline access point that passes traffic back and forth over the network. WLANs are an effective way to share wireless Internet access from a broadband connection within a distance of 100 metres. They are also increasingly used to provide broadband access over long distances in rural areas and developing nations (using special equipment and technology to boost the effective distance of the connection points). The most common type of WLAN technology is known as Wi-Fi; however, Wi-Fi is one of several WLAN standards and is not synonymous with WLAN. Other WLAN technologies include Home RF2, HiperLAN2, and 802.11a.

In rural areas and developing countries, particularly in regions that do not already have access to a traditional wireline infrastructure, broadband can help “leapfrog” these infrastructures and provide access to voice, data and Internet services. This is particularly true with WLAN technologies, such as Wi-Fi, which are easy to install and inexpensive. Many projects around the world are looking for ways to use WLAN to bridge the last mile. For example, the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector is in the process of implementing three pilot projects to determine the performance of WLANs for providing community access in rural areas of Bulgaria, Uganda and Yemen. As the prices of fibre optics fall, rural areas and developing economies may also be able to leapfrog by using high-speed fibre optic cabling for all new connections, rather than the older copper lines that are common throughout the developed world.

For more information please contact:

Keith Stimpson
Media Relations Manager
ITU Telecom
Tel: +41 22 730 5260
Fax: +41 22 730 6923

Kathleen Maksymec
Media Relations Manager
ITU Telecom
Tel: +41 22 730 5229
Fax: +41 22 730 6923  



Top -  Feedback -  Contact Us -  Copyright © ITU 2011 All Rights Reserved
Contact for this page : Strategy and Policy Unit
Updated : 2011-04-04