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Broadband Reference Guide: A Resource for Digital Stakeholders

The following broadband information is directly from the Broadband Reference Guide: A Resource for Digital Stakeholders produced by the WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions. The ICN would like to thank the WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Technology Solutions for allowing us to use this information as a broadband resource.

Broadband connects people to the Internet. It is a high-speed transmission link from a home, business or school to the World-Wide Web and other digital resources. It replaces a traditional “dial-up” or narrow band telephone connection since it is always on and allows you to use multiple services at the same time. For example, you don’t need to disconnect from the Internet to make a telephone call.

Broadband is available for different technologies (laptops, mobile phones, tablets) and from many different Internet Service Providers (ISPs). With compatible equipment, broadband connections allow a user to support many different devices at once. You can access the Internet (i.e., surf the world-wide-web, listen to music, check your email, visit social media sites, etc.), watch TV, and use your telephone. Often these services (Internet, phone, and TV) are packaged together or bundled so one provider (one bill) offers all these options to meet your household or small business needs. Broadband service providers can be telephone or cable companies, a wireless network provider (cell phone companies) or satellite service.

Broadband infrastructure consists of the backbone, the middle mile, and the last mile.

Backbone, middle mile and last mile fiber runs through the State of Iowa, anchor institutions, business, residential, and local schools.

The backbone consists of very large capacity trunks (usually fiber optics) that connect to multiple fiber-optic lines capable of transmitting large amounts of data. It provides a path for the exchange of information that local or regional networks can connect with for long distance data transmission. These data routes and backbone connections are owned by private providers, commercial, government, academic and other network centers.

The middle mile links the backbone to the ISP or telecommunications providers’ core network or telecommunications exchange. In some communities, the middle mile may connect anchor institutions that enable them to share applications, infrastructure, and other resources.

The last mile brings the connection to residents’ homes and small businesses within the telephone exchange or cable company serving the area. Though all pieces of the broadband infrastructure are important, much focus of the debate and concern on broadband is on the availability (or lack thereof) the last mile connectivity.

Often the difference between residential broadband connections and broadband networks that connect to the middle and last mile is the infrastructure, the connection speeds, and the size of the data files that are transferred.

Explanation of ICN’s Infrastructure: The state-wide network administered by the ICN has a fiber optic backbone across the state (estimated 3,400 miles of owned fiber and 5,200 miles of leased fiber), provides middle mile services to authorized users (i.e. healthcare, public safety, government, education), while the last mile is a partnership of leased connections with private telecommunications companies to deliver services to K-12 education facilities. ICN is not permitted by law to deliver services to residents or businesses.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Data in a digital sense is made up of bits (a bit is a 0 or 1); 8 bits of data (00101110) is a byte. For broadband data, transmission speeds and bandwidth, you will encounter references to bits and bytes (and kilobits, kilobytes, megabits, megabytes, gigabits and gigabytes and so on (refer to Table 1. Data Measurement).


Bit 1 bit   = single 1 or 0 (on or off)
Byte 1 byte = 8 bits
Kilobyte (KB) 1 KB  = 1,024 bytes or  = 8,192 bits
Megabyte (MB 1 MB  = 1,024 kilobytes or  = 1,048,576 bytes
Gigabyte (GB) 1 GB  = 1,024 megabytes or  = 1,048,576 kilobytes

Broadband speed is how fast data transfers over a connection; speed is measured in bits per second. Data (files stored on your computer or information transmitted over a network) is measured in bytes (megabytes, kilobytes, and so on). The speed at which data moves over a network connection is determined by bandwidth; that is, the size of the “pipe” or broadband technology that the data is traveling on.

For example, data transfers from your computer in packets or bytes of information; a typical packet contains 1,000-1,500 bytes. Every web page you visit receives a series of packets and every email you send leaves your computer as a series of packets; each packet gets to its destination by the best available route. How fast the data gets to its destination depends on the file size (or how much data is being sent) and the bandwidth of the technology the data is traveling on.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

The amount of data and bandwidth needed depends on two main factors: how many users or devices require connection at the same time and the function each device or user is performing. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides households with some basic bandwidth guidelines when multiple devices are utilizing the same connection. Table 2 lists the guidelines produced by the FCC (

This is a matrix that contains upload and download speeds that are needed for different online tasks. This matrix provides additional detail and will determine bandwidth needs for different applications.









1 user on 1 device 1 to 2 mbps 1 to 2 mbps 6 to 15 mbps
2 users or devices at a time 1 to 2 mbps 1 to 2 mbps 6 to 15 mbps
3 users or devices at a time 1 to 2 mbps / 6 to 15 mbps 6 to 15 mbps more than 15 mbps
4 users or devices at a time 1 to 2 mbps / 6 to 15 mbps 6 to 15 mbps more than 15 mbps
Basic Service = 1 to 2 mbps*
Medium Service = 6 to 15 mbps
Advanced Service = More than 15 mbps
*mbps (megabits per second) is the standard measure of broadband speed. It refers to the speed with which information packets are downloaded from, or uploaded to, the Internet

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Internet data (or bandwidth) caps are monthly limits on the amount of data an Internet user can upload or download over his/her paid connection; sometimes data caps can discourage Internet use and the innovative applications the Internet can spawn. Internet service providers (ISPs) apply data caps to service plans to prevent individual users from consuming the entire data capacity over a cable or shared resource. Many ISPs offer shared data plans meaning that the total amount of data used in a billing period (2Gb, 4Gb, 6Gb, 8Gb, or 10Gb) is divided among many different users.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Advertised speeds are rarely, if ever, possible to achieve. For downloading, rates vary depending on how far the home connection is from the service provider, how many users on the network and other factors. Providers can’t predict exact speeds for a location and therefore speeds are often advertised in a range. Some reasons why a person might not get the advertised transfer rate include:

  • Time of day they access the network; during peak time the network can only handle so much data
  • The distance they are from the provider equipment—in most cases, the closer to the provider equipment the faster the data will transfer
  • The type of broadband connection
  • Equipment or programs installed (i.e., firewalls, wireless adapters, outdated computer technologies) can impact access

Running a speed test and contacting the service provider can help a user get the service being paid for.

To run a speed test visit the Connect Iowa website at

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Download speed is the speed that information on the Internet (e.g., text and graphics) is transferred to your computer; that is, how long it takes your computer to load websites and download files to display on your screen. Upload speed is the speed that your computer can transfer or send information to the Internet. For example, if you want to send photos to a website to be printed by your local vendor, you “upload” the photos to the site. Download speeds normally happen at faster speeds than uploads; however, that can depend on broadband connections or how web pages are created.

Latency is the amount of time it takes for a small packet of information sent from your computer to reach another computer on the Internet, and then return back to you. This measurement is also referred to as Ping and is measured in milliseconds (ms)2. When you send information from your computer (click a link, type in a web address, send an email) it waits for confirmation that the data packet was received, thus “latent” time. Latency and bandwidth are the two factors that determine the speed of your network connection.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Many different types of broadband technologies are available and the speeds for these technologies vary; not all broadband technologies are available in every location. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) determine the type of broadband technology they can provide and the locations they serve.

ISPs usually advertise broadband by download speeds, or as a download speed “up to” so many mbps; therefore, understanding the actual technology when purchasing broadband can be difficult, and may not be as important as the broadband speed. However, some basic knowledge of the different broadband technologies, and the pros and cons for each, is important when comparing plan features and investing in a broadband service plan. Broadband technologies can be divided into two categories, wired broadband and wireless technologies.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Wired broadband essentially means there is a physical connection to a physical location (a home or business) through a cable. There are three main types of wired broadband connections for consumer or residential use: DSL, coaxial cable, and fiber. DSL uses traditional copper wire telephone lines. Cable television companies traditionally provide service over coaxial cables. Fiber systems are comprised of glass fiber strands over which optical (light) signals are sent. (Other options for wired broadband include T1 or T3 lines and Broadband over Power Lines (BPL)). With the use of a router, all wired technologies can also provide a Wi-Fi network within the home or business.

DSL is a wired transmission that uses traditional copper telephone lines already installed to homes and businesses. Availability and speed of DSL service may depend on the distance from a home or business to the closest broadband-equipped telephone company central office or telephone exchange.

A modem in your home connects the computer or wireless router to a copper telephone line using an Ethernet cable. The phone line connects to a digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) at the telephone central office or, in some instances, at a remotely located junction box in outlying neighborhoods. The DSLAM, combines multiple signals into one aggregate connection and routes it to the ISPs Internet backbone.

DSL: Advantages

An advantage of DSL service is that it works with existing wiring. The only equipment needed is a modem plugged into an existing phone jack and filters for each telephone in your home or office. Another benefit of DSL service is that each user has a dedicated link and the speed is constant and will not diminish if more people in your neighborhood are also using DSL. DSL provides reliable broadband service for most residential and small business customers.

DSL: Disadvantages

A disadvantage of DSL service is the inability to deliver the service further than 18,000 feet from the central phone office or other DSLAM location. DSL cannot be reliably delivered to homes or businesses beyond this distance. Another disadvantage is that the upload speeds do not match download speeds. While DSL connections are adequate for the average consumer, with technology enhancements and innovation, the bandwidth that DSL offers may be outdated for many due to its bandwidth constraints.

Cable television companies provide broadband using the same coaxial cables that deliver pictures and sound to your TV set. A cable modem is an external device that normally has two connections: one to the cable wall outlet, the other to a computer. Cable Internet is usually faster than DSL.

Subscribers can access their cable modem service by simply turning on their computers, without dialing-up an ISP which is referred to as an “always on” connection. You can still watch cable TV while using broadband and get telephone service through Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone technology. Cable provider’s market their services in bundles, which can be a cost effective way to purchase internet services. While cable broadband is faster than DSL, transmission speeds vary depending on the type of modem, cable network, and how many people in the neighborhood are using a cable connection.

Cable: Advantages

A benefit of cable modem service is its availability to all cable company customers where the cable network has been upgraded to deliver cable modem service. The distance between your residence and the cable company will not affect your Internet speed. Cable is also generally faster than DSL.

Cable: Disadvantages

A disadvantage of cable modem service for rural communities is the lack of cable service beyond the edges of the larger towns. Another disadvantage is that the connection is shared between you and other people on the network segment and therefore speed may vary greatly at different times of the day and can slow down significantly in a neighborhood where many residents using cable connections access the Internet simultaneously. For example, if you live in a neighborhood where cable modem penetration is high you may notice a significant increase in the time it takes to upload and download information in the evening when people return home from work and school. Another disadvantage is that upload speeds never match download speeds.


Fiber optic technology converts electrical signals to light pulses (on/off) and sends the light pulses through transparent glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair. There is less signal loss or degradation with fiber optic technology than conventional copper wires or coaxial cables. Fiber transmits data at speeds far exceeding current DSL or cable modem speeds.

Fiber: Advantages

There are advantages to using fiber optic cable for telecommunications; the main advantage is the ability to provide higher bandwidth and greater distance between terminals. Compared to conventional copper wire, fiber optic cable can deliver more bandwidth than conventional metal wire. Because of its size, many optical fibers can be bundled into one outer covering, or jacket, allowing for a higher carrying capacity—more phone or cable lines going through one channel. Fiber optic cable can deliver more bandwidth than other broadband technologies at a lower cost of maintenance and allows for future expansion and opportunities as innovative and entrepreneurial concepts evolve.

Fiber: Disadvantages

Installing fiber and lighting the fiber cable is expensive and maybe cost-prohibitive for many providers serving rural areas. Fiber cable is fragile and also requires equipment to convert electrical signals into light signals and then reconvert them back into an electrical signal at the receiving end.

Broadband over Power Lines

BPL is the delivery of broadband over the existing low- and medium-voltage electric power distribution network. BPL speeds are comparable to DSL and cable modem speeds. BPL can be provided to homes using existing electrical connections and outlets.

Broadband over Power Lines: Advantages

BPL can use existing power lines decreasing the cost of installing a new transport infrastructure and the ability to connect a modem to any electric receptacle. BPL also sends and receives data at the same high speed. You can upload mail, video files, and business data as quickly as you can download similar files.

Broadband over Power Lines: Disadvantages

A major hurdle for BPL in rural areas is the cost of equipping the power lines to carry the broadband signal. Financial analysis of several pilot projects determined that there would need to be between four and six homes per transformer to deliver broadband service at prices equivalent to DSL or cable modem service.

Dial-up connections are not typically considered broadband Internet; however, in some locations, dial-up Internet access is the only available connection technology. Dial-up is less expensive than other broadband offerings and it may be adequate for some uses (i.e., text only email), but may not support other uses like gaming, watching videos, etc. because of inadequate bandwidth.

T1 (or T3) lines are reserved circuits that are usually leased or rented from a company for telecommunications. These lines operate over copper or fiber cables and are used mainly by businesses to connect offices that are geographically separated with voice and data communications. Leased lines are expensive and rarely used for residential purposes.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014

Wireless broadband services are similar to wired broadband in that they connect to an internet backbone usually a fiber-optic trunk; however they don’t use cables to connect to the last mile or business/residences. Instead they use Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) connections or radio waves. A computer or mobile device has a wireless adapter that translates data into a radio signal and transmits the signal using an antenna. A wireless router receives the signal, decodes it and then sends it to the Internet through a wired Ethernet connection.

Fixed wireless is a type of high-speed Internet access where connections to service providers use radio signals rather than cables. Fixed wireless offers connections speeds between 1 and 10 mbps and use transmission towers similar to cell phone towers that communicate to a resident’s transceiver equipment that, as the name implies is fixed at the premise. The transceiver equipment communicates with the providers’ ground stations.

Wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) is a fixed, short-range technology that is often used in combination with DSL, fixed wireless, fiber, or cable modem service to connect devices within a home or business to the Internet using a radio link between the location and the service provider’s facility. Wi-Fi service can be available in your home or at community locations (airports, coffee shops, schools, businesses, etc.) and are often called “hotspots.” A Wi-Fi network uses radio waves, similar to two-way radio communications. A computer has a wireless adapter that translates data into a radio signal and transmits it using an antenna. A router receives the signal, decodes it, and then sends the information to the Internet using a physical connection, usually via an Ethernet cable, a cable that carries the broadband signal between the modem, router, computer, and other wired Internet capable devices.

Mobile Wireless (3G, 4G)

Mobile wireless is high-speed wireless broadband connection that is accessible from random locations. The locations depend on the provider’s cellular towers and monthly service plans. Many technologies make up wireless networks, but no matter the technology or acronyms you read or hear, mobile wireless networks are radio systems.

Mobile wireless services are continually being upgraded to provide data transmission speeds considered to be broadband. The faster mobile wireless networks are referred to as 3G or 4G.The “G” stands for “generation,” meaning 3rd and 4th generation or the evolution of broadband cellular networks; supposedly, each generation provides a faster more secure wireless network. A mobile wireless service requires a base station that is connected to a high capacity landline data transmission network to reach the Internet. In other words, it’s never wired OR wireless; ultimately, it has to be both. Wireless broadband in common usage means that the so-called “last mile” connection to the user is done via radio signals from a tower to a cell phone or other wireless devices (e.g., a tablet).

Long Term Evolution (LTE)

LTE is a 4G technology provides increased peak data rates, reduced latency, scalable bandwidth capacity than 4G predecessors. LTE can manage multi-cast and broadcast streams and handle quick-moving mobile phones. It uses an IP-based network architecture that allows for seamless handovers for voice and data to older model cell towers.


Satellite broadband is sometimes the only option available to users in very rural or sparsely populated areas. Like telephone and television services, satellites orbiting the earth provide necessary links for broadband. With satellite service, you must have a clear view of the southern sky. Satellite service can be disrupted by weather conditions and changes in line of sight to the orbiting satellite. Satellite may have a higher monthly service charge than other broadband options and the need to purchase more home or business equipment compared to the other options. Because satellites are located a significant distance from customers, there are issues of “latency” and therefore a noticeable time lag between sending and receiving data by the end customer.

Downstream and upstream speeds for satellite broadband depend on several factors, including the provider and service package purchased the consumer’s line of sight to the orbiting satellite, and the weather. Satellite speeds may be slower than DSL and cable modem, but they can be about 10 times faster than the download speed with dial-up Internet access. Service can be disrupted in extreme weather conditions.

Source: Information from Wisconsin’s Broadband Reference Guide produced by: WI Public Service Commission, UW-Extension Madison, and the Center for Community Technology Solutions, January 2014


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