Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Broadband - The Joys of Faster

April 2002

By Mike Gould

What with all the brouhaha of late regarding the many manifestations of broadband, I thought it might be a good idea to step back a pace and contemplate the basics. What exactly is all this broadband jazz, and why do we want it?

History The term "Broadband" comes to us from the ancient Druid term "Braddtebannadh", which means "Great wide pipe from which swiftly flows all the wisdom in the world, ever". Another, less imaginative, explanation has it: "From the words 'bandwidth', which describes the amount of information flowing down a wire per unit time, and 'broad', which means 'a lot'". Or in other words, a really fast connection to the Internet.

Recent advances in communication are usually described in terms of speed. We used to have very slow modems, in the 14.4K range and slower, and then we had fast modems, currently topping out at 56K. Real old-timers will brag: "In my day, we had to get up real early and try to log in with this 300-baud thingie with rubber cups that hooked up directly to the phone receiver. And we were grateful for that...".

All this special-K stuff is translated as thousands of bits per second. 14.4K means data flowing back and forth at 14,400 bits per second. Using this kind of antique modem, you have a bandwidth of 14.4K, you miserable Luddite, you.

And all this traffic is going back and forth on telephone lines that weren't designed to do ones and zeroes at all, just the analog fluctuations of voice. The current 56K speed of modern modems are the result of the physical fact that it is just not possible to go much faster on current regular POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) wiring. There are efforts under way to get around this limit, but nothing on the immediate horizon.

The connections above fall under the classification of "Narrowband"; a pipe that allows just a trickle of information back and forth. For years, this sufficed. All that users wanted to do was send messages back and forth on Local Area Networks (LANs), swap messages on online bulletin boards, and maybe access university databases for materials in text format. Text is small, as information goes; a text file will download fast and would appear on your old computer monitor in a timely fashion. But then the Internet and the Web happened, and suddenly, everything was different.

With the Web came pictures, sounds, movies, and the rest of Western Civilization As We Know It. At your fingertips, summoned by your mouse, displayed on your screen. Really sl-o-o-o-w-l y. All of a sudden, that 56K modem that seemed so zippy for email became a bottleneck between you and the services you wanted. Something Had To Be Done.

So great minds set to work and came up with the current situation: DSL and Cable Modems, and broadband was born. Broadband, as the term is used today, means a fairly direct connection to a high-speed portion of the Internet. The Internet, remember, is the collective total of smaller networks that share a common protocol, or means of communication (if I may grossly simplify a complex topic into a single sentence, which is really what they pay me for around here). These networks are really, really fast; it is just getting to them from home and business that is the slow part. That last mile between you and the nearest Internet outpost is what broadband is designed to speed up.

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) speeds this up over special phone lines, and cable modems do the same over lines originally laid for cable TV. Just appearing locally is a third method: wireless transmission of data to an antenna on your roof. We'll address this in a future article.

And for comparison with the above speeds, Comcast is currently advertising download speeds of up to 1.5Megabits per second, which is nearly 3 times faster than an ordinary modem. DSL speeds aren't quite as fast, in the 768K range for the same price, but plenty fast enough for effective Web surfing. (Note that the above are maximum speeds; your mileage may vary depending mostly on where you are in relation to their connection points).

So that's broadband; so why is this a Good Thing for the concerned small business owner?

Well, time is money and anything that takes less time costs less money, right? Well, mostly. If all you need to do in your business is send an occasional email, you can probably survive with a modem for the moment. But that moment is shrinking as your competitors are getting into broadband and out-distancing your business practices.

You want broadband if:

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