Monday, May 26, 2014

Demystifying Broadband Perceptions

A. K. M. HabiburRahman Director, BTCL[1]  

1.            Introduction
We all know that concept of Internetworking of network originated from the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) project of Dept. of Defense, USA. There are now millions of computers world-wide connecting each other forming the Internet. Although the word “Internet” was used for the first time in 1982, an American Internet Service Provider, The World (, was the first public dialup Internet Service Provider on the planet started service in 1989. Until Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and Cable Modem become common in most of the households, the only way to access the Internet was using dial from PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) connection.

Dialup technology uses digital modem which transforms digital signal of computer into analog signal for traversing over PSTN and vice versa.The first commercial modem,Bell 103, was manufactured by AT&T in 1962. Finally the 56 kbps modem was invented by Dr. Brent Townshend in 1996. Dialup Internet using 56 kbps modem is termed as “Narrowband” Internet.

The main drawback of this dial-up connection was that a single phone line could only be used for modem transmission, or phone calls – it was not possible to use both services simultaneously.  The speed was also painfully slow. Business users had to install a second phone line dedicated to the modem. The need to use the same phone line for modem transmission and phone call simultaneously was the mother of invention of broadband.

2.            Birth of Broadband
Nothing much changed about modem and internet technology until a great leap occurred to overcome the problems of analog PSTN system by inventing the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) technology. The ISDN is comprised of digital telephony and data-transport services offered by the telephone carriers. The ISDN offers two types of services: (i) Basic Rate Interface (BRI) with two B channels @ 64 kbps and one D channel @ 16 kbps providing its total bit rate to 192 kbps. (ii) ISDN Primary Rate Interface (PRI) service offers 23 B channels and 1 D channel in North America and Japan, yielding a total bit rate of 1.544 Mbps (here D channel runs at 64 kbps). ISDN PRI in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world provides 30 B channels plus one 64-kbps D channel and a total interface rate of 2.048 Mbps.

Unfortunately ISDN technology did not spread-over and become popular all over the world. However, the technology continues to use till now. A quantum leap in the data communication speed in the last mile happened during the mid 1990’s, when Digital Subscriber line (DSL) technology made it possible to provide both internet access and telephone calls through the same telephone line simultaneously.  Since then different variants of a particular technology as well as alternate technologies have been developed to increase data communication speed. Initiatives have been ongoing in both the wired and wireless telephony to increase data communication speed.

3.            Defining Broadband Worldwide
3.1          International Telecommunication Union
ITU-T Recommendation I.113 defines the term broadband [wideband] asQualifying a service or system requiring transmission channels capable of supporting rates greater than the primary rate.” The primary rate is ISDN primary rate which is 1.5 Mbps in North America and Japan or 2.0 Mbps in Europe and other countries. ITU-T Recommendation Series I is related to Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and Recommendation I.113 is about Vocabulary of terms for broadband aspects of ISDN. The Recommendation was published in June 1997.

In September 2003, ITU published the report“ITU INTERNET REPORTS: BIRTH OF BROADBAND”. The report statesthat Broadband is commonly used to describe recent Internet connections that are significantly faster than today’s dial-up technologies, but it is not a specific speed or service. Recommendation I.113 of the ITU Standardization Sector defines broadband as a transmission capacity that is faster than primary rate ISDN, at 1.5 or 2.0 Mbps. Elsewhere, broadband is considered to correspond to transmission speeds equal to or greater than 256 kbps, and some operators even label basic rate ISDN (at 144 kbps) as a “type of broadband”. In this report, while not defining broadband specifically, 256 kbps is generally taken as the minimum speed.

The report recognizes that“The term “broadband” is like a moving target. Internet access speeds are increasingall the time. As technology improves, even ITU’s recommended speeds will soon be considered too slow.”Recently, ITU in its document “Core ICT Indicators2010” released in January 2010 has considered the broadband as follows:

Fixedbroadbandrefers to technologies at speeds of at least 256kbit/s,in one or both directions, such as DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), cablemodem, high speed leased lines, fibre-to-the-home, power-line, satellite,fixed wireless, Wireless Local Area Network and WiMAX.”

Mobilebroadbandrefers to technologies at speeds of atleast 256kbit/s,in one or both directions, such as Wideband CDMA (WCDMA), known asUniversal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS) in Europe; High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA), complemented by HighSpeedUplink Packet Access (HSUPA); CDMA2000 1xEVDO and CDMA 20001xEVDV. Access can be via any device (handheld computer laptop ormobile cellular telephone etc.).”

3.2          OECD Countries
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)defines broadband as an Internet connection that is capable of sustaining download speeds to individual users greater than or equal to 256 kbps. It is observed that broadband speed defined by most of the countries is less than or equal to 256 Kbps.

3.3          Some other Countries
Bangladesh: National Broadband Policy 2009 of Bangladesh defines the broadband as “An ‘always on’ data/internet connection that ensures a minimum bandwidth of 128 Kbps subject to its revision as and when necessary.”The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) has revised the definition of broadband service in January 2013. As per BTRC notification,always on connectivity with minimum 1Mbps bandwidth shall be defined as broadband.

India: Broadband Policy 2004 of India defines broadband as “An ‘always-on’ data connection that is able to support interactive services including Internet access and has the capability of the minimum download speed of 256 kilo bits per second (kbps) to an individual subscriber from the Point of Presence (PoP) of the service provider intending to provide Broadband service where multiple such individual Broadband connections are aggregated and the subscriber is able to access these interactive services including the Internet through this PoP. The interactive services will exclude any services for which a separate license is specifically required, for example, real-time voice transmission, except to the extent that it is presently permitted under ISP license with Internet Telephony.”

Department of Telecommunications, India has declared that only those wireline Internet subscribers with at least 512kbps as should be treated as ‘broadband’ with effect from October 2013. Consequently, the number of broadband connections in India has come down to 14.91 million connections from 15.3 million (the rest are classified as “Internet” connections).

Pakistan:Pakistan Broadband Policy 2004 defines broadband “As most applications can be adequately supported if the minimum user speed is around 128kbps, accordingly broadband in Pakistan will be defined as ‘Always on Internet connection with a download speed of at least 128kbps connectivity’. This download speed target will be subject to an increase as the bandwidth prices reduce, local content becomes available and there is a general increase in awareness of broadband.Pakistan broadband policy also recognizes the variations in the definition of ‘Broadband’ ranging from 128 Kbps to 2 Mbps or higher among different countries.

South Africa: South African Government Gazette No. 33377 published on 13 JULY 2010 mentions that the Standardization Sector of ITU defines Broadband as a speed of 1.5 to 2 Mbps while the Development Sector defines Broadband to be 256 kbps.  The Gazette declares “South Africa will follow the guideline from the ITU Development Sector and as such Broadband will be interpreted as an always available, multimedia capable connection with a download speed of at least 256 kbps.”

United State of America: Federal Communications Commission defined “broadband” as the capability of supporting, in both the provider-to-consumer (downstream) and the consumer-to-provider (upstream) directions, a speed (in technical terms, “bandwidth”) in excess of 200 Kbps in the last mile.

Figure 1: Minimum Broadband Speed in Different Countries/regions (in kbps)
Scotland: Broadband is “a very high speed ‘always-on’ service connection allowing large amounts of information to be conveyed quickly, such as data, graphics files or video generally defined as a bandwidth more than 512 Kbits/s.”

4.0          Reasons behind Variations in Definitions
4.1          Country Landscape
Comparative research demonstrated that the definition of Broadband in different countries varies between 128 kbps and 10 Mbps.Due to each country’s unique needs and history, including economic, geographic and regulatory factors, definitions of broadband vary widely. It was also observed that in most cases the "advertised" throughput speed has a weak relation with the actually delivered speed, which will actually vary over time, depending on the application, the server, and many other factors.

4.2          Statistical Reason!
It should be kept in mind that defining a broadband with a higher value of data rate is not a panacea. It depends on the availability of the service, subscribing power of the users and on the overall economic and social conditions of the country. If a higher value is set, connections below that data rates will not be officially recognized as broadband and eventually not included in the statistics. This will contribute a negative impact in the computation of different indices (e.g. Digital Opportunity Index, ICT Readiness Index, E-readiness Index, ICT development Index) prepared and published by different international and regional bodies. These indices indicate one country’s ICT capability and help build country image in the international arena. To have a better position in the ‘index table’, some countries might have still set a lower value to define broadband which must supports common broadband applications with an intention to upgrade the cut-off value periodically.

5.            Impact of Broadband on ICT Development Index

Figure 2: Indicators of ICT Development Index developed by ITU
The ICT Development Index (IDI) has been introduced by ITU in 2009 to monitor and compare status of ICT developments across the countries. It was developed as a composite index combining eleven ICT indicators, grouped in three clusters: access, use and skills. ICT access and ICT use are the two major components of the IDI giving equal weight whereas ICT skills have been given less weight. The composition, reference values and weight of the sub-indices for determining the IDI have been pictorially shown below.

Figure 3: Composition of ICT Development Index

It is understood that broadband has a substantial contribution to the measurement of ICT Use sub-index in the computation of the IDI.  The statistics based on national reference value for broadband are collected by ITU from different national regulators and used for computation of the IDI. So, the national definition of broadband has some impact on the competitive status of the ICT capabilities of the nations around the world. A comparison table of the ICT use indicators of 6 nations of SAARC countries shown below will demonstrate the status of Bangladesh with respect to ICT Use sub-index of the IDI.

Table-1: ICT Use Indicators for Six Nations of SAARC Region for 2011 & 2012

Percentage of individuals
using the Internet
Fixed (wired)-broadband
subscriptions per
100 inhabitants
Active mobile broadband
per 100 inhabitants
ICT Development Index Ranking

Sri Lanka

6.            Shifting of Fixed-broadband Speed
Advertised Speed (Mbit/s
>0.256 - 0.512
>0.512 - 1.024
>1.024 - 2.048
>2.048 - 10
>10 - 50
Speed not specified
The ITU report “Measuring the Information Society 2013” presented a statistics on minimum advertised fixed-broadband speeds of 144 nations over the period 2008 to 2012 as given in the table.It is observed that 45% countries offered fixed-broadband with 256 Kbps minimum speed in 2008 which came down to 21% in 2012. Number of countries offering broadband with minimum speed in 256~512 Kbps segment and 512~1024 Kbps segment have not changed over the study period. But number of countries doubled in 1024~ 2048 Kbps segment and 2.048~10 Mbps segment during that period. It is remarkable that still 4.2% countries do not advertise any minimum speed for fixed-broadband. The statistics demonstrate the fact that upward movement of minimumfixed-broadband speed occurred although one-third countries still offer minimum 256~512 Kbps speeds forfixed-broadband service.

7.0          Misunderstandings on Broadband

Figure - 4 : Broadband Value Chain
The common misunderstanding is about the width (broad) of the band up to what level in the full path of delivery of the service. When a subscriber subscribes a 256 kbps broadband connection, he/she expects to get 256 kbps Internet at all times! Here misunderstanding is the main reason behind such expectation. Before clearing up the misconception, it is very necessary to understand the broadband value chain. As depicted in Figure-2,full path of the broadband value chain consists mainly of three parts. The last mile part consisted of Service Provider’s PoP to End User is called access part, Service Provider’s PoP to International Internet Gateway (IIG)/National Internet Exchange (NIX) is composed of National Long Distance Transmission Part and IIG to Overseas network consists of national backhaul & overseas upstream connection part. It is universally understood that broadband connectivity is meant for access part i.e. between the end user to the service provider Point of Presence (PoP).

Although broadband is sometimes interchangeably used with Broadband Internet, but the perception in not fitted in Bangladesh Context. Bangladesh is geographically situated in such a location of the planet; it has to bear longer transportation to connect with the global Internet. Due to serious lack of local content availability, most of the Internet trafficshave to traverse the overseas upstream network. Hence, broadband to be perceived as broadband Internet seems to be very costly. Availability of all necessary contents locally will lessen the burden on overseas bandwidth and make the users feel true broadband.

The second misunderstanding is about minimum bandwidth to be assigned as dedicated or shared for the full path of broadband delivery. This is related to quality of service and price of the service to be paid. It is unrealistic to consider subscribed bandwidth for the full path in terms of value of the broadband package. Many operators formulate package to offer dedicated bandwidth for full path at higher price and term the service as “Leased Line Internet”. There are big differences between Broadband Services and Leased Line Internet Services. The service providers offer the broadband service at cheap rates because this does not guarantee subscribed bandwidth availability at all time beyond the Service Provider’s PoP. These services are always on best effort basis. But in case of Leased Line Internet, the service providers have to ensure 100% availability of bandwidth at all time for full path for what has been paid for by the customer.

The regulators specify different criteria to maintain quality of broadband service by the service providers. As for example, TRAI issues ‘Quality of Service of Broadband Service Regulations 2006’ and directs the service providers for Subscribed Broadband Connection Speed to be met>80% from ISP Node to User.”

8.            Conclusion
There is an alternative approach to define the broadband by some countries. They define broadband in terms of functionality instead of defining in terms of speed. Brazil is an example where broadband is defined as the internet connection with sufficient capacity to provide access to data, voice and video applications that are common or socially relevant to users. This allows for the government to adjust the set of Internet applications that serve as the benchmark. However, as far as country’s competitive status is concerned,it needs to follow a common metric. If it wants to be able to track its growth in broadband availability from year to year, it needs to set a standard that can be easily and reliably measured over time. In the midst of controversy of defining broadband in different countries, Canada has set a clear position in this regard. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission distinguishes between “high-speed Internet service,” defined as at least 128 kbps, and “broadband service,” which must be at least 1.5 Mbps. This is an interesting solution indeed!

[1]Currently working as CEO, Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN)