Broadband Primer


What is Broadband?

"Broadband" refers to high-speed Internet connections that allow for transfers of information at rates far faster than those of dial-up modems. While the Internet has often been jokingly referred to as the "World Wide Wait" on account of slow downloads, Broadband connections allow people to view streaming media at speeds closer to what might be associated with television, rather than the herky-jerky experience that characterizes dial-up modems. Transfer speeds for Broadband are up to 50 times faster than via dial-up modems, creating the opportunity for people to download mp3s (compressed digital audio files) or films without having to wait for hours.

Broadband connections are offered on a variety of platforms, including DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), cable, satellite, and wireless.

Will Broadband become the norm any time soon?

According to JD Power and Associates, "High-speed ISP subscriptions account for 13 percent of all residential ISP subscriptions in the United States. This penetration increased significantly from 5 percent in 2000. Among current dial-up subscribers, 10 percent state that they are 'extremely' or 'very likely' to switch to a DSL and/or cable modem connection in the next six months." Analysts believe that the number of Broadband users will rise dramatically between 2001 and 2004, estimating over 60 million users in the United States (source: eMarketer). Within 5 to 10 years, Broadband will replace dial-up modems as the standard means of Internet connection.

What does "Common Carriage" refer to?

Dial-up modems allow for the transfer of information over phone lines, and are thus governed by a set of nondiscrimination rules applying to telephone networks. Mirroring the US policy for the public highways, the telephone industry has been required to serve consumers as "Common Carriers." The policies of common carriage--particularly the requirement that phone companies not discriminate against information by halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of data--have been central to the growth of the Internet into a diverse, competitive medium. Common carriage permitted the development of the Internet Service Provider (ISP) marketplace, affording users the opportunity to go online via one of the more than 7,000 companies that compete with such giants as AOL and Microsoft.

What does "Open Access" refer to?

Open Access is the principle that has governed the Internet since its inception. It is synonymous with the idea of open architecture. The Internet was originally designed as a pipeline that would treat all information in a nondiscriminatory fashion, a design referred to as "end-to-end" because no gatekeeper could control how the data would be treated. The common carrier rules governing telephone networks contributed to the Net's open access design.

Why is Open Access such an important issue?

Since Broadband will become a dominant method of Internet connection, the lack of common carriage protection and open architecture safeguards pose a threat to all Net users. Cable and satellite companies, for example, are not required to operate as open access networks when providing high-speed Net service. And local phone companies are lobbying to remove or weaken their open access requirements when they provide consumers with high-speed DSL services.

Without open access safeguards there is a tremendous potential for large Internet service providers (ISPs), such as AOL-Time Warner or Verizon, to control the flow of information. For example, without a nondiscrimination rule, there is nothing to stop these large ISPs from providing their own content first class treatment and the highest download speeds, while nonaffiliated content would be forced into the online "economy" (or even slower) class. For the many groups that will not be able to afford the ISPs prices for first class treatment (including nonprofit groups, independent artists, and others), this likely would severely limit their Web presence. For without open access, the rules of Internet commerce and communications will be determined by the telecom giants, rather than the public.

For more information on Open Access, see CDD's Open Access page.

What does "convergence" refer to?

Convergence refers to the merging of previously distinct media into one product or service. various home recreational technologies into one marketable whole. For instance, several companies are creating boxes for deployment that include gaming capabilities (e.g., Sony's Playstation 2) as well as high-speed Internet capabilities. The media and entertainment industries believe that the creation and deployment of a product that combines television, home stereo, telephone, gaming systems, the Internet, and other technologies will be an extraordinarily marketable good. As AOL-Time Warner CEO Steve Case said in a recent keynote address, "Every decade has some word associated with it. In the '80s, it was the PC. In the '90s, it was the Internet. For the rest of this decade, the key word is going to be convergence."

What is "Interactive Television?"

Interactive TV (ITV) represents the merging of television and Internet capabilities, and is being created in various forms. Some will allow for viewers to watch TV while "chatting" online or sending IMs (instant messages); some have personal video recording (PVR) capabilities that allow users to set preferences in order for the set-top box to automatically record not only their favorite shows and movies, but other shows and movies that the box might "suggest." Others allow the user to click on parts of the screen during a show or commercial to find out more about that object, a feature that ad-makers expect to help create a huge market of interactive consumers.

However, the same concerns that consumer groups have regarding Open Access also apply to ITV, which is expected to be in nearly 40 million US households by 2004. Additionally, there are significant privacy threats that are being embedded into the architecture of ITV-an industry being built around the premise of data collection. CDD's report, "TV that Watches You: The Prying Eyes of Interactive Television," details the extensive data collection practices of the ITV industry.

Get informed! For more information on current Internet issues, visit CDD's Issues page.