What is broadband?

A simple question.  A really, very, incredibly simple question.

But not with a simple answer.

Ask most Internet-using inhabitants of the UK and they would probably tell you that “broadband” could be defined as an always-on Internet connection in the home provided by an Internet Service Provider for a monthly fee.  And that’s fine for everyday conversation.

But it’s more than a bit vague for a proper definition.  In fact we need to look back some 14 years to find the origins of the term and try to understand its beginnings.

The common-language use of the “broadband” term seemed to spring up around the early 2000s when the dominant British telecoms company BT were promoting their new type of Internet connection provided using a technology called ADSL.  It then continued to be used by BT to promote the various new technologies which came along in their Internet access product portfolio: ADSLMax, ADSL2+, Fibre-to-the-Cabinet VDSL and now Fibre-to-the-Premises, along with Virgin Media’s competitor products using a mix of coaxial cable and Fibre-to-the-Cabinet.  All of these are, of course, single Internet connections into a single building, normally a residential property.

So, just when it seemed a bit clearer the waters were muddied further in more recent years with the appearance of the term “Mobile Broadband” introduced by the mobile phone firms to refer to GPRS, 3G and 4G Internet connections via mobile phone networks by means of a USB dongle, a portable Wi-Fi enabled router or a SIM card inserted into a suitably equipped laptop, tablet and so on and so forth.

The International Telecommunication Union did create a 1980s document stating that broadband was a service faster than 1.5Mbps, but I have not yet found any other authoritative technical definition tying down exactly what broadband is.  And with current offerings from BT of 80Mbps on copper phone lines or 330Mbps on fibre optic cables and from Virgin Media of 120Mbps that 1980s definition would seem more than a little outdated.

Wikipedia can often be pretty good at giving a summary overview and definition of technical terms (with suitable caution exercised as to the veracity of the content).  But even Wikipedia struggles here.  Its effort can be summarised in the rather telling sentence “different criteria … have been applied in different contexts and at different times”.

My view?  These days “broadband” is nothing more than a marketing term, seized upon by major telecoms and Internet companies about 14 years ago for promoting the new range of services and its definition has been constantly manipulated and tweaked ever since to mean whatever they want it to mean.

And if I need to prove my point: never heard any of those ADSL-wots-it and Cabinet-something-or-other names I rattled off a few paragraphs back?  Of course not – these true names for the services have been masked from view by the all-encompassing and wonderfully vague “broadband” moniker.

After all, it’s hardly sexy and cool to sell people ADSL2 or FTTC.  But broadband?  Well it just sounds big; and big is good when it comes to selling.

But not so good for truly understanding the product offering and making informed purchasing decisions.  That’s the problem we can hit when helping private clients define their needs and wants.  They need and want broadband.

But what does that actually mean?

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