Journalist Resources: Common Questions About Broadband

Frequently Asked Questions about Understanding the Broadband Market

This page is for journalists, policymakers, and researchers trying to understand the basics of the broadband Internet market in the USA.

We get inquiries every day from people asking for help understanding our data and the broadband market in general. This page covers the most common questions and confusion points we’ve noticed among these inquiries.

We will also cover some of the basics of “how the Internet works” and how to write about it, including how to properly express Internet speed in writing, understand common terms, and etc.

Basic FAQ: Most Common Journalist Questions

Where does BroadbandNow’s data come from?

Our data is a mix of public and private datasets. First, we pull the FCC’s bi-annual coverage data, which is required from all telecom providers in the USA. We also pull census data, as well as private data we get from providers directly, or from other data sources. We cannot share all our private data sources due to the confidentiality agreements required to access this information in the first place.

We cross-validate these datasets in order to create an online coverage tool so accurate that provider employees use it in-house to check their own coverage area.

Plan and pricing information is not collected by the government. The backbone of our data aggregation in specific areas is manually gathered, validated, and updated on a daily basis.

Our speed data is pulled from real-world speed tests by M-Labs, the speed test tool integrated with Google as well as BroadbandNow. This data is an estimate of speeds available in an area based on averages of tests. It is not based on advertised speeds. Since people generally run speed test when they have issues with their home network, the speed results tend to overall be a bit lower than what you can expect as a customer in a given area.

More information on our data, as well as recommendations for data sources we consider trustworthy, can be found at our broadband data page.

Who is BroadbandNow?

BroadbandNow is a for-profit company. We are not a nonprofit or government group. Our goal is to increase transparency in the Internet market by making coverage and plan data easily available to consumers free of marketing fluff and bias.

How does BroadbandNow make money?

Our data efforts are funded by referral agreements with providers. However, our results are always listed in order of provider coverage in a given city or zip code, and providers cannot pay to manipulate their placement in results.

Remaining unbiased in presenting Internet options for consumers has allowed us to grow from a two-person project to a 20+ member team, and work with major media outlets and nonprofits to create positive change in the broadband industry. Our data has been cited and covered by Ars Technica, The Verge, and Bloomberg among others.

Broadband Internet Terms Guide:

Broadband: As defined by the FCC, broadband Internet is any connection with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speed of at least 3 megabits per second.

ISP: Internet Service Provider

Download speed: refers to the rate at which the connection can download data. (Example: “35 Mbps download speed,” or “35 Mbps down.”)

Upload speed: refers to the rate at which the connection can upload data. (Example: “5 Mbps upload speed,” or “5 Mbps up.”)

Speeds up to…”: Internet plans are often advertised by the top possible download speed. For example, “speeds up to 50 Mbps.” Keep in mind that the speed customers get is generally somewhat slower than the speed advertised.

Double Play: a plan that includes Internet and TV. (Or Internet and phone.)

Triple Play: a plan that includes Internet, TV, and phone service.

Bundle: a plan that includes multiple services.

The Last Mile: The term “the last mile” refers to the part of Internet infrastructure that connects a particular residential or commercial building to the larger worldwide Internet networks. The last mile comes in three common wired flavors: fiber, cable, and DSL. Fixed Wireless is also a solution used in both urban and rural areas for the last mile.

Market Overview: Fiber, Cable, and DSL Internet

Internet access in the USA is provided by companies like Comcast, Verizon Fios, and Charter Spectrum.

These providers are called “last mile” providers, because they bridge the distance between customer residences and the international “Internet backbone.”

These companies come in three basic flavors: cable, DSL, and fiber. Most of them used to be phone or TV providers, and began offering Internet access because it became possible to transmit digital data over their existing networks.

Broadband technology types:

Fiber

Fiber is the gold standard of Internet, using fiber-optic cables to deliver data at gigabit speeds. Speeds are usually in the 100–1,000 Mbps range download and upload. Speeds at or near 1,000 Mbps mark are often marketed as “gigabit Internet.”

Fiber plans from Verizon Fios and Google Fiber are often described as “FTTH”, meaning “Fiber to the Home.” This is different from fiber-based services like FTTN (Fiber to the Node) where fiber is run close to the house, but still makes the final leg of the journey over coaxial cable, DSL, or ethernet.

More detailed information about fiber can be found at our fiber Internet technology guide.

Cable

Cable Internet uses coaxial cables from TV networks to deliver data. Most cable networks use fiber for part of the network, allowing them to advertise themselves as “hybrid fiber-coaxial.” Speeds average around 20–100 Mbps for downloads and 1–30 Mbps for uploads.

For more information on cable, see our cable Internet technology guide.

DSL

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) uses twisted copper telephone lines (AKA the telephone lines you see all over) to deliver digital data. Speeds average around 10–40 Mbps down and 3–10 up.

For more info on DSL, see our DSL Internet technology guide.

Internet Issues FAQ: Journalist Guide to net Neutrality, Digital Divide, and challenges to US Broadband

Why is Internet in my town/city so bad?

Most of the US has a “duopoly” system where the majority of consumers have access to only two options: one cable provider and one DSL provider.

This is because most houses in the US market have been hooked up for cable TV and phone service at some point over the last half century or so. These existing wired connections were adapted to deliver digital data, making it necessary to add a dedicated fiber connection to each and every house.

Since these TV/phone wire networks are privately owned, the private companies that provider service over them have no obligation to share that network with other companies. For this reason, most houses only have one option for cable and one option for DSL. If they’re lucky, they may have a fiber provider like Fios or Google Fiber in their area as well. However, fiber providers are a relatively new addition to the Internet market.

Data Caps and streaming: why people are mad

Data caps are increasingly being used by ISPs to provide “usage-based billing.” Consumers see this as a method of discouraging streaming services like Netflix. ISPs say it’s a necessary change since the huge glut of video traffic has made network management difficult.

Some providers use them — others don’t. Providers that don’t use them are generally preferred by cord cutters. Most providers cap their plans at around 1 TB, which is much more than the average customer every uses. This may change in the future however thanks to 4K (extremely high definition) video streaming, VR, and other new bandwidth-heavy techs.

We maintain a regularly-updated list of ISPs with data caps.

Municipal Broadband: what is it and should we have it?

Municipal broadband is a term for publicly-owned Internet built out as a utility by towns and cities. This is commonly done as part of “smart grid” infrastructure upgrades. Cities like Chattanooga are often held up as examples of this setup, which can cost lots of taxpayer money but also draw tech industry to depressed areas.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance maintains an online database of existing municipal broadband networks.

There is a fiber line in our street. Why can’t we use it?

Even when it was regulated as a “Title II” utility, Internet networks are still privately owned. In some cases, the government will have fiber lines to connect government buildings, libraries, and etc. Building out residential service from such lines is complex and expensive.

What is “Dark Fiber?”

Dark fiber is the term for fiber that is in the ground but not currently being used. Since the cost of installing fiber lines both locally and nationally is mostly in the digging and construction, most fiber providers (and cities when publicly-owned) lay much, much more cabling than they actually need. This fiber is “dark” because it isn’t lit up with data, which is transmitted as light (laser diodes) in fiber cables.

How can I find out who owns dark fiber in my town/city?

There is not currently a public database of fiber line locations, since most of them are private and companies don’t want to make their networks entirely known to competitors.

There are some companies that aggregate this data and will help you find lines in your area as a service, such as FiberLocator. You can also contact your local government offices to request “dig info” kept on file for determining where you can and can’t dig due to power/fiber/cable/etc lines in the ground.

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