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App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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March 21, 2008 10:48 AM

How I'd Define Broadband

Everyone acknowledges the FCC's definition of broadband at 200Kbps is outdated and in need of an update, as I have covered earlier.

There have been some attempts to set a new definition, but none that have really taken hold. For example, Congress has tried to redefine broadband as the speed necessary to deliver one high definition video stream, but that never went anywhere in part because it's hard to say what constitutes an HD video stream.

To some degree Congress was on the right track, though. I think it's important that however we redefine broadband that it relates to what that connectivity can do rather than how many Kbps or Mbps it may have.

So to start with, having broadband should mean having the ability to watch video with real-time or close to real-time playback. Sure you can argue the video can be watched over any speed, you just have to wait longer for it to download. But in my mind any connection that wants to call itself broadband has to be able to support instant-on video.

Using HD video as the benchmark doesn't make a lot of sense given its amorphous definition, the fact that most broadband today is not capable of delivering a true HD video stream, and the reality that most content providers still don't have their video available online in HD yet.

Instead, I look towards the other end of the spectrum. While video can be delivered at any bitrate, the most common bottom end for video lies somewhere in the 300-500Kbps range. That includes videos on YouTube and any live streaming where the video window's about the same size. This range gives you full-motion, OK quality video, basically the baseline for what consumers have shown themselves willing to watch.

Now this is all downstream. If you want to be using videocalling applications with similar quality video then you need the same amount of capacity upstream as you do down. And as so many next-gen apps require as much if not more upload as they do download, any definition of broadband should strive to be symmetrical.

Also important to note is that no matter which direction you're sending video, you always need some overhead in terms of higher capacity than a video's bitrate in order to guarantee quality playback.

Add all this up and I come to a number of 750Kbps. If you have 750Kbps, then you can watch some, but not all, Internet video, and therefore you have broadband.

I'd suggest that we move immediately to replace 200Kbps with 750Kbps symmetrical as how we define broadband.

Now I know this number will seem low to many. Just looking at video alone there are some companies who are delivering HD video at more than 7Mbps. And fewer and fewer households only have one computer, so there's the issue of cumulative demand to acknowledge, that often more than one person may be trying to watch video over the same broadband pipe.

Add to this the fact that the many use of the Internet are ever-expanding, and it quickly becomes apparent that no matter what number is chosen it can't be a static definition. Instead it must evolve over time to reflect the changing reality of how the Internet is being used.

That's why I'd suggest for now we institute a policy of doubling the definition of broadband every year for the foreseeable future.

So if we move to switch from 200Kbps to 750Kbps today, next year it'd be 1.5Mbps, the year after 3Mbps, the year after 6Mbps, so by 2012 we're at 12Mbps symmetrical, and by 2015 we're right near 100Mbps.

This would only be three years after the FTTH Council's call for a 100Mbps Nation by 2012. But instead of being an amorphous goal, this would create a more specific path to incentivize deployment to those levels.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much the FCC's current definition of broadband impacts things like regulations and government subsidies.

But I would propose that with this new definition we begin to tie a lot of things to it so that companies who are moving forward with increasing their capacity could qualify for tax credits to offset deployment costs and additional freedoms when it comes to managing traffic on their networks.

Part of the reason I chose 750Kbps this year was so that we don't immediately disqualify a whole bunch of technologies that currently call themselves broadband, though I expect that even at that number we could get some pushback from wireless providers.

That is why we should create tiers to how we define broadband. One possibility might be to separate wireline and wireless, with the wireless definition not only being slower over all but having lower expectations for year-to-year growth in capacity.

Another thought is if we're tying these new definitions of broadband to incentives for deployment, perhaps we could create a matrix whereby technologies that cover greater areas more quickly get some relief on having to deliver higher speeds.

Along these lines, it might also be worth considering segmenting this further to distinguish between rural and urban areas, where near-term urban deployment could focus on speed and rural on availability.

More than anything, though, I feel it's vitally important that we start moving that definition up sooner rather than later as the longer it sits there the more foolish we as a country look. Try telling someone from Japan or Korea that we consider 200Kbps to be broadband and see the reaction you get.

Continuing to have to call 200Kbps broadband makes me embarrassed to be an American.

We created the Internet, but we won't be the country to conquer it if we don't move quickly and aggressively to address issues like revisiting and revamping our 20th century definition for what broadband is.

Now I open up the floor to my learned readers. What do you think the new definition of broadband should be? Would you support my proposal? How might you expand it?

There's nothing better we can be doing for our country than engaging in this dialog, so fill out a comment with your two cents and join the conversation!


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