The IT Law Wiki


The term broadband refers to advanced communications systems capable of providing high-speed transmission of services such as data, voice, video, complex graphics, and other data-rich information over the Internet and other networks.[1]


Broadband enables consumers to receive information much faster than a dial-up connection and provides an “always-on” connection to the Internet.[2] Consumers can receive a broadband connection through a variety of technologies. Broadband speeds vary significantly depending on the particular type and level of service ordered and may range from as low as 200 kilobits per second (kbps), or 200,000 bits per second, to six megabits per second (Mbps), or 6,000,000 bits per second. Some recent offerings even include 50 to 100 Mbps. Broadband services for residential consumers typically provide faster downstream speeds (from the Internet to the subscriber's computer) than upstream speeds (from the subscriber's computer to the Internet).

Transmission is provided by a wide range of technologies, including digital subscriber line and fiber optic cable, coaxial cable, wireless technology, and satellite. Broadband platforms make possible the convergence of voice, video, and data services onto a single network.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 does not define “broadband” as such, although the Act defines "advanced telecommunications capability" as "high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology.”[3]

Broadband itself is a leading indicator of the major transitions in communications technology and services provided by incumbents and new entrants into virtually every segment of the communications industry. No longer is broadband simply another service — it is a growing platform over which the consumer accesses a multitude of services, including voice, data, and video in an integrated way across applications and providers.

Available technologies[]

There are multiple transmission media or technologies that can be used to provide broadband access. These include


Cable and DSL are currently the most widely used technologies for providing broadband access. Both require the modification of existing physical infrastructure already connected to the home (i.e., cable television and telephone lines). Each technology has its respective advantages and disadvantages, and competes with each other based on performance, price, quality of service, geography, user friendliness, and other factors.

By using a broadband, high-speed Internet connection, users can view video, make telephone calls, or download software and other data-rich files in a matter of seconds. In addition to offering speed, broadband access provides a continuous always-on connection (no need to "dial-up") and a "two-way" capability — that is, the ability to both receive (download) and transmit (upload) data at high speeds.

Special attributes[]

Wireless is a unique broadband solution for several reasons. These include providing both mobility and portability, efficiently connecting devices within short distances, and bridging longer distances more efficiently than wireline and cable technologies. This combination of mobility and portability can make broadband access both seamless and ubiquitous. Just as wireless voice technologies have enabled consumers to move through their daily lives without having to worry about how and where to make a call, wireless broadband technologies can free consumers from having to think through when or where or how they will get access to information and entertainment. Wireless technologies also can be more efficient for communicating between short hops (e.g., Wi-Fi, home wireless networks).

In addition, wireless technologies have the ability to reach geographic areas, particularly rural areas, that often cannot be efficiently served by other technologies. Because the deployment of wireless technologies does not require running copper, cable, or fiber lines to individual homes, the costs of deployment often are lower than those associated with these technologies. Further, wireless technologies frequently are a more cost-effective solution for serving areas of the country with less dense populations, and provide rural and remote regions new ways to connect to critical health, safety, and educational services.

U.S. Government Activities[]

Congress recognized the importance of broadband in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which directs the FCC to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.” Under this authority, the FCC has to date established a minimal regulatory environment for broadband Internet access services. In the past, the FCC has stated that less regulation has encouraged providers to invest in broadband infrastructure. The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, allows the FCC to classify services as "telecommunications services" or "information services," the latter being subject to fewer regulatory restrictions.

The FCC, through a number of proceedings, has classified broadband Internet access (regardless of the platform) as an information service.[4] The FCC does not have explicit statutory authority to regulate the provision of information services; however, the FCC has the authority to impose regulations under what is termed its ancillary jurisdiction to regulate services that are reasonably related to its existing statutory authority.[5] The FCC also has the authority to adopt broadband regulations to ensure that broadband providers are capable of providing authorized surveillance to law enforcement agencies.[6]

Some policymakers, believing that disparities in broadband access across American society could have adverse economic and social consequences on those left behind, assert that the federal government should play a more active role to avoid a “digital divide” in broadband access. One approach is for the federal government to provide financial assistance to support broadband deployment in underserved areas. Others, however, question the reality of the “digital divide,” and argue that federal intervention in the broadband marketplace would be premature and, in some cases, counterproductive.

Evolution of broadband in the United States[]

Prior to the late 1990s, American homes accessed the Internet at maximum speeds of 56 kilobits per second by dialing up an Internet Service Provider (such as AOL) over the same copper telephone line used for traditional voice service. A relatively small number of businesses and institutions used broadband or high speed connections through the installation of special “dedicated lines” typically provided by their local telephone company.


Starting in the late 1990s, cable television companies began offering cable modem broadband service to homes and businesses. This was accompanied by telephone companies beginning to offer DSL (digital subscriber line) service (broadband over existing copper telephone wireline). Growth of high-speed lines[7] has been steep, rising from 2.8 million high speed lines as of December 1999, to 113 million lines as of June 30, 2009.[8] Of the 113 million high-speed lines reported by the FCC, 93.9 million serve residential users.[9] Since the initial deployment of residential broadband in the United States, the primary residential broadband technologies deployed continue to be cable modem and DSL.[10]

A distinction is often made between “current generation” and “next generation” broadband (commonly referred to as next-generation networks or NGN). “Current generation” typically refers to currently deployed cable, DSL, and many wireless systems, while “next generation” refers to dramatically faster download and upload speeds offered by fiber technologies and also potentially by future generations of cable, DSL, and wireless technologies. In general, the greater the download and upload speeds offered by a broadband connection, the more sophisticated (and potentially valuable) the application that is enabled.

Fixed or portable wireless broadband access technologies fall within three principal categories of networks, defined principally by the short, medium, or longer-range of coverage capabilities for which they are optimized. As general matter, there are three basic types of such wireless networks: (1) wireless personal area networks (WPANs), with network links typically shorter than 10 meters; (2) wireless local area networks (WLANs), with individual network links that can span up to three miles, and (3) wireless metropolitan area networks (WMANs), with individual network links that can span distances of up to 30 miles.

Current U.S. broadband usage[]

A December 2008 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 57% of Americans have broadband at home.[11] By April 2009, home broadband adoption increased to 63% of adult Americans.[12] Broadband usage by demographic group is set forth in the following table.


It is estimated that less than 10% of U.S. households have no access to any broadband provider whatsoever (not including satellite).[13] While the broadband adoption or penetration rate stands at close to 60% of U.S. households, broadband availability is much higher, at more than 90% of households. Thus, approximately 30% of households have access to some type of terrestrial (non-satellite) broadband service, but do not choose to subscribe. According to the FCC, possible reasons for the gap between broadband availability and subscribership include the lack of computers in some homes, price of broadband service, lack of content, and the availability of broadband at work.[14]

Consumer choice among broadband providers, however, remains limited as more than 80% of consumers have a choice of only one or two providers. Moreover, urban and suburban[15] consumers typically have more choice than rural consumers. In those areas with greater choice,[16] prices for broadband service are lower. A recent survey found that of the 15% of consumers reporting that they have four or more broadband Internet access choices at home, they paid approximately 18% less than the average monthly bill.[17]

Currently, relatively large market shares for fixed, wireline broadband services are typically held by a single incumbent cable operator and a single incumbent telephone company in each geographic area and relatively large market shares for mobile broadband services held by the four largest wireless carriers. Nonetheless, a variety of other technologies are beginning to compete in[18] that market. The narrowband, dial-up Internet access services introduced in the mid-1990s have[19] largely been supplanted by much faster broadband connections, as consumers have demanded faster access to increasingly sophisticated and data-rich content and applications.

Consumers obtain last-mile broadband Internet access services through fixed wireline technologies such as digital subscriber line (“DSL”) service, coaxial cable, and fiber lines. A substantial number of consumers also now have high-speed Internet access via wireless technologies, including: fixed wireless technologies such as Wireless Fidelity (“Wi-Fi”); mobile wireless technologies such as third-generation (“3G”) mobile cellular service; and satellite. Increasingly, new technologies such as WiMAX and other fourth-generation (“4G”) wireless technologies are expected to be deployed as well. Broadband Internet access providers offer these services in a variety of different formats.[20]

According to Pew, non-broadband users tend to be older, have lower incomes, have trouble using technology, and may not see the relevance of using the Internet to their lives. Between 2007 and 2008, low income Americans (under $20,000 annual income) and African Americans showed no significant growth in home broadband adoption after strong growth in previous years.[21] Pew also found that about one-third of adults without broadband cite price and availability as the reasons why they don’t have broadband in their homes, while two-thirds cite reasons such as usability and relevance.[22]

Broadband speeds (and prices) are important factors that can determine which technologies are deployed, which applications will be enabled, and how widespread deployment will be. Table 1 shows different broadband speed ranges and the applications they make possible.


The FCC’s fifth and latest “706 report,” which is prepared pursuant to section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to periodically determine whether broadband is being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion, found that, “In the future, we anticipate ever-greater demand for services and applications requiring greater bandwidth over an ever-expanding area.”[23]

As part of any discussion over national broadband policy, a distinction is often made by industry and policymakers between “current generation” and “next generation” broadband (commonly referred to as next generation networks or NGN). “Current generation” typically refers to currently deployed cable, DSL, and many wireless systems, while “next generation” refers to dramatically faster download and upload speeds offered by fiber technologies and also potentially by future generations of cable, DSL, and wireless technologies.

Access to the Internet is virtually ubiquitous in public schools and libraries. In a study released by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2006, nearly 100% of public schools in the United States had Internet access, and 97% of these schools used broadband connections to access the Internet.[24] Public libraries also have high Internet access adoption rates. A 2006 study sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the American Library Association found that 99% of public library branches connect to the Internet and 98 percent of connected public library branches offer public Internet access.[25] Further, 33% of libraries now provide wireless Internet access.

In general, more sophisticated (and potentially valuable) applications are available with faster download and upload connection speeds. The most recent FCC broadband status report to Congress characterized future advances in broadband networks as follows:

At the same time that broadband demand increases, network technology continues to evolve and improve. Previously distinct networks are now converging and overlapping to form competing broadband networks that perform all of the network applications once only possible by purchasing services from multiple service providers. Competition between broadband platform providers attempting to keep up with their competitors will drive higher speed technologies and service offerings to the marketplace. Coverage too will continue to become more ubiquitous as a diversity of technologies mature.[26]

Subsequently, as increasingly sophisticated and innovative applications become enabled, the impacts on consumers, the economy, and society become potentially more profound and far-reaching.

Broadband in rural areas[]

While the number of new broadband subscribers continues to grow, the rate of broadband deployment in urban areas appears to be outpacing deployment in rural areas. While there are many examples of rural communities with state of the art telecommunications facilities, recent surveys and studies have indicated that, in general, rural areas tend to lag behind urban and suburban areas in broadband deployment.

Because of relatively low population density, topographical barriers, and greater geographical distances, broadband service may be more difficult to obtain in some rural areas. Particularly for wireline broadband technologies — such as cable modem and DSL — the greater the geographical distances among customers, the larger the cost to serve those customers. The terrain of rural areas can also be a hindrance to broadband deployment because it is more expensive to deploy broadband technologies in a mountainous or heavily forested area. An additional added cost factor for remote areas can be the expense of “backhaul” (e.g., the “middle mile”) which refers to the installation of a dedicated line which transmits a signal to and from an Internet backbone which is typically located in or near an urban area. Thus, there is often less incentive for companies to invest in broadband in rural areas than, for example, in an urban area where there is more demand (more customers with perhaps higher incomes) and less cost to wire the market area.

Some policymakers believe that disparities in broadband access across American society could have adverse consequences on those left behind, and that advanced telecommunications applications critical for businesses and consumers to engage in e-commerce are increasingly dependent on high-speed broadband connections to the Internet. Thus, some say, communities and individuals without access to broadband could be at risk to the extent that connectivity becomes a critical factor in determining future economic development and prosperity.

In attempting to address these challenges, some rural communities have found it helpful to develop a strategic plan for broadband deployment that includes creating a comprehensive business proposal to broadband providers. Such a plan, for example, could demonstrate to broadband providers that deployment is a sound business decision that would benefit both the providers and the community. This strategic planning process may include, but is not limited to, the following elements and strategies:

  • Educating the community about the potential benefits of broadband service.
  • Creating partnerships among community organizations and institutions that might benefit from broadband deployment.
  • Systematic assessment and prioritization of the community’s needs for broadband service.
  • Aggregating (consolidating) demand within the community to make service profitable for broadband providers. Participants may include, but are not limited to, individual consumers, businesses, educational institutions, health care facilities, and government agencies.
  • Identifying an anchor tenant with adequate demand to spur infrastructure investment in broadband.


  1. According to the FCC, "broadband" means high-speed lines that deliver services exceeding 200 kilobits per second in at least one direction; it uses the term "high-speed" to describe services and facilities with over 200 kbps capability in at least one direction. Broadband is also different from narrowband modem service in that it is "always on," meaning there is no need to dial up. See Availability of Advanced Telecommunications Capability in the United States, GN Docket No. 04-54, Fourth Report to Congress, 19 FCC Rcd 20540, 20551-52 (2004).
  2. "The exact boundary between narrowband and broadband is a matter of dispute, with various estimates running all the way from 128,000 bits/second (e.g., the 2B lines of full- fledged ISDN) to something in excess of 2,048,000 bits/second (e.g., E1)." Enabling the Information Society by Stimulating the Creation of a Broadband Environment in Europe, at 5.
  3. 47 U.S.C. §157 nt (c)(1).
  4. See e.g., In the Matter of Inquiry Concerning High-Speed Access to the Internet Over Cable and Other Facilities; Internet Over Cable Declaratory Ruling; Appropriate Regulatory Treatment for Broadband Access to the Internet Over Cable Facilities, Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 17 FCC Rcd 4798 (2002) (Cable Modem Declaratory Ruling), aff’d Nat’l Cable & Telecomms. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967 (2005); Appropriate Framework for Broadband Access to the Internet over Wireline Facilities; Universal Service Obligations of Broadband Providers; Review of Regulatory Requirements for Incumbent LEC Broadband Telecommunications Services; Computer III Further Remand Proceedings: Bell Operating Company Provision of Enhanced Services; 1998 Biennial Regulatory Review — Review of Computer III and ONA Safeguards and Requirements; Conditional Petition of the Verizon Telephone Companies for Forbearance Under 47 U.S.C. §160(c) with Regard to Broadband Services Provided via Fiber to the Premises; Petition of the Verizon Telephone Companies for Declaratory Ruling or, Alternatively, for Interim Waiver with Regard to Broadband Services Provided via Fiber to the Premises; Consumer Protection in the Broadband Era, Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 20 FCC Rcd 14853 (2005) (Wireline Broadband Internet Access Services Order), aff’d, Time Warner Telecom, Inc. v. FCC, 507 F.3d 205 (3d Cir. 2007); United Power Line Council’s Petition for Declaratory Ruling Regarding the Classification of Broadband over Power Line Internet Access Service as an Information Service, Memorandum Opinion and Order, 21 FCC Rcd 13281 (2006) (BPL-Enabled Internet Access Services Order); Appropriate Regulatory Treatment for Broadband Access to the Internet Over Wireless Networks, Declaratory Ruling, 22 FCC Rcd 5901 (2007).
  5. See National Cable Telecomm. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 976 (2005) (FCC has jurisdiction to impose additional regulatory obligations under its Title I ancillary jurisdiction to regulate interstate and foreign communications). The FCC has relied on its ancillary jurisdiction in adjudicatory proceedings, for example, in the proceeding in which it found Comcast’s practices did not constitute reasonable network management. Formal Complaint of Free Press and Public Knowledge Against Comcast Corporation for Secretly Degrading Peer-to-Peer Applications; Broadband Industry Practices; Petition of Free Press et al. for Declaratory Ruling that Degrading an Internet Application Violates the FCC’s Internet Policy Statement and Does Not Meet an Exception for “Reasonable Network Management,” 23 FCC Rcd 13028 (2008) (Comcast Order). Comcast filed a petition appealing this order on Sept. 4, 2008, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Petition for Review, Comcast v. FCC, No. 08-1291 (D.C. Cir. Filed September 4, 2008). In 2005 the Commission adopted an "Internet Policy Statement" in which it committed “to preserve and promote the vibrant and open character of the Internet as the telecommunications marketplace enters the broadband age” by incorporating four consumer-based principles into its ongoing policy-making activities. Internet Policy Statement, 20 FCC Rcd 14986 (2005).
  6. Federal courts have upheld the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband Internet service providers under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). In addition, in 2005 the Commission determined that providers of interconnected voice over Internet protocol services and broadband Internet access services are subject to CALEA. See Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act and Broadband Access and Services, First Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 20 FCC Rcd 14989, 14991-92, para. 8 (2005) (CALEA First Report and Order), aff’d sub nom. American Council on Educ. v. FCC, 451 F.3d 226 (D.C. Cir. 2006).
  7. Defined as a line providing a customer over 200 kbps in at least one direction.
  8. Federal Communications Comm'n, Internet Access Services: Status as of June 30, 2009, released September 2010, at 6.[1]
  9. Id. at 8.
  10. Id.
  11. John Horrigan, Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Barriers to Broadband Adoption – The User Perspective” (Dec. 19, 2008).[2]
  12. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Home Broadband Adoption 2009 (June 2009).[3]
  13. S. Derek Turner, Free Press, "Down Payment on Our Digital Future" 8 (Dec. 2008).
  14. Federal Communications Comm’n, Fourth Report to Congress, “Availability of Advanced Telecommunications Capability in the United States,” GN Docket No. 04-54, FCC 04-208, at 38 (Sept. 9, 2004).[4]
  15. FCC, High-speed Services for Internet Access Status as of June 30, 2008, at 11, 22, Tables 6 & 16.[5]
  16. Pew Internet & American Life Project Home Broadband Adoption 2009 (June 2009), at 24.[6]
  17. Id. at 23-24.
  18. FCC, Annual Report and Analysis of Competitive Market Conditions with Respect to Commercial Mobile Radio Services, Thirteenth Report, 24 FCC Rcd 6185, ¶¶15-19 & Table A-4 (Wireless Telecom. Bur., released Jan. 16, 2009) (Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and carriers affiliated or acquired by these four companies served approximately 93% of mobile subscribers in the country as of the end of 2007).
  19. See FTC Staff, Broadband Competition Connectivity Policy 98-105 (2007).[7]
  20. See generally id; FCC, High-speed Services for Internet Access Status as of June 30, 2008, at 11, 22, Tables 6 & 16.[8]
  21. “Barriers to Broadband Adoption – The User Perspective,” at 1.
  22. John Horrigan, Pew Internet & American Life Project, “Obama’s Online Opportunities II: If You Build It Will They Log On?” (Jan. 21, 2009).[9]
  23. FCC, Fifth Report, at 36.
  24. See John Wells & Laurie Lewis, "Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2005," at 4-5 (U.S. Dep't of Education, Nov. 2006)[10]
  25. See John Bertot et al., "Public Libraries and the Internet 2006: Study Results and Findings," at 1 (College of Info., Florida St. Univ., Sept. 2006)[11]
  26. FCC, Fifth Report, at 36.

See also[]