Broadband Concepts & Definitions


Since broadband is a complex topic, the concepts highlighted here provide some basic information that municipalities should know as they begin identifying broadband coverage gaps, pressing municipal broadband needs, and potential solutions for broadband expansion.

An important distinction to make is the difference between broadband availability and broadband adoption. Broadband availability refers specifically to the physical availability of broadband infrastructure. In other words, if someone or a business wants internet, do they have an option? Broadband adoption, on the other hand, means that not only is there broadband available but someone or a business is actively subscribed to the broadband service. In some cases, broadband may be available, but it is not adopted because the services are too expensive, or the quality of the connection is too poor.

Furthermore, digital equity is an important part of the broadband conversation. Digital equity means that all people regardless of age, income, or other circumstance have access to broadband internet, digital information, and internet-enabled devices to connect them online. Digital equity for an individual is satisfied when there is affordable and quality broadband internet service, access to internet-enabled devices, and adequate digital literacy training opportunities available. Any missing piece would create connectivity issues for an individual. For instance, if someone has access to broadband internet and internet-enabled devices but does not understand how to access a telehealth appointment, then that person is not fulfilling their digital potential or digital needs.


Broadband lingo can be confusing. If a municipality is going to partner with others to request funding for broadband expansion, then there are some common broadband concepts with which local leaders should become familiar.

Broadband service is a retail service that provides the capability to transmit data and receive data. Internet service providers offer broadband service through mobile broadband, fixed broadband, and wireless broadband. An internet service provider is any person, business, or organization qualified to do business that provides individuals, corporations, or other entities with the ability to connect to the internet. 

Broadband service is often defined in terms of internet speeds, such as high-speed internet. To know what broadband speed is offered, throughput—the speed you actually experience when accessing internet—is measured. Throughput is affected by type of device, number of connections, router location, adjacent devices, and the building’s wiring. It is important to note that speed tests do not always provide the best results as they show a static moment in time. 

Broadband areas are commonly separated into three categories: served, underserved, and unserved areas. New York State has defined each of these concepts in legislation. Served areas are places that have at least two internet service providers, one of which must offer high-speed internet service. High-speed internet service is any internet service that gets at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and at least 10 Mbps upload speeds. Underserved areas are any places with one internet service provider or multiple internet service providers that offer between 25 Mbps and 100 Mbps download speeds. Unserved areas are areas that have no fixed wireless broadband service or have a fixed wired service that offers 25 Mbps or less download speeds. 

Mobile broadband refers to cellular network technology and development. According to the New York State Broadband Program Office, “[a] cellular network consists of a constellation of sites which communicate to mobile user devices and are handed off from site to site.” You may have noticed that you drop calls or have poor cell data in parts of Tug Hill, for instance. A major reason for this is that you and your mobile device are too far from one of the sites in a cellular network constellation. 

The major parts of a cellular network are the radio access network, the core network, the backhaul fiber optics or microwaves, towers, poles, and support structures. Radio access networks emit the radiofrequency links between your mobile device and cellular networks’ transmission equipment. The core network is responsible for critical functions and can vary from system to system based on the generation of technology. The core network interprets subscriber profile information, users’ locations, authentication of services, and makes the switch between data usage and calling and texting usage. Older generations of core network technologies include 1G technologies (i.e., switch boards), 2G technology (i.e., short messaging service, SMS, available to mobile devices), 3G (i.e., internet available to mobile devices), and 4G/4G Long Term Evolution (i.e., faster internet available to mobile devices with cell tower signals reaching further than before).  

The newest core network technology is 5G, which is an enhanced version of 4G that allows for faster data speeds. 5G networks can be dually connected to existing 4G Long Term Evolution infrastructure or a standalone 5G Core network, which is the newest technology. 5G technology is seen as the future of “smart” cities, villages, and town infrastructure. As virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence devices become more ubiquitous in American life, 5G technology will be essential to using those technologies whenever a user is not connected to fixed or wireless internet. However, 5G technology requires more towers, as the range is limited to 300 meters. The Tug Hill region should not expect 5G technology for a few more years due to this tower density challenge. 

An existing technology that has recently modernized is wireless broadband, which primarily includes fixed wireless local area networks (WLANs) infrastructure and satellite internet. For most wireless technologies, an external antenna or “dish” is needed to connect via radio frequencies with internet service providers’ facilities. Fixed wireless broadband operates using wireless communication devices or systems that connect two fixed locations (e.g., building to building or tower to building) through a radio or other wireless link. Fixed wireless data links are often a cost-effective alternative to leasing fiber or installing cables between buildings.  

Satellite internet sends an internet request from your computer to a satellite between 100 (low-Earth orbit) and 23,000 miles (high-Earth orbit) out in space. Older internet satellites are located at high-Earth orbit, in which the satellite’s period of rotation (24 hours) matches the Earth’s and the satellite always remains in the same spot over the Earth. Only a couple of high-Earth orbit internet satellites are needed for full coverage at any given location, which makes it a convenient solution for rural areas like Tug Hill. The orbiting distance, however, makes a difference when it comes to latency. Latency can be thought of simply as the time it takes a website to load. High-Earth orbit satellites offer high latency service (i.e., longer lag time, slow “pings,” and sluggish response times).  

Newer internet satellite technology is being deployed at low-Earth orbit, which means that satellites are moving around the Earth every hour and a half or so. Considering this rapid movement, a large low-Earth orbit satellite constellation is needed to ensure that users stay connected. Satellite internet companies are in process of building those constellations. Low-Earth orbit internet satellites promise to provide low latency service (i.e., quick response times/pings and shorter lag times). In Tug Hill, wireless technologies are a potential alternative to the high buildout costs of fixed broadband technology. 

In New York State, fixed broadband service is primarily delivered via cable modem, digital subscriber line (DSL), and fiber-optic cable. Cable modems use coaxial cable—the same infrastructure technology as cable television—to distribute last-mile broadband access while bandwidth is managed through shared connections. DSL uses older technology (e.g., copper telephone lines) to transmit digital data over telephone lines and handles a different set of frequencies than the out-of-date “dial-up” method. It can exist on the same cable as plain old telephone service. Asymmetric DSL is the most common DSL technology for internet service. Copper telephone networks built in the 20th century have been and are currently being replaced by fiber-optic infrastructure. 

Fiber-optic infrastructure, sometimes called fiber to the premise or fiber to the home, is a fixed broadband technology that converts electrical signals with data to light, which is sent through thin transparent optic glass fibers. Fiber to the home networks provide all or part of the local loop used for last mile telecommunications. Fiber-optic infrastructure is considered the gold star of fixed broadband as its cables are able to carry much more data and transmit data at speeds faster than copper cables or coaxial cables, especially over long distances. 

Contrary to what one may think, mobile broadband does need to have fiber connectivity in order to function. In other words, there is an overlap in mobile broadband and fixed broadband infrastructure with the development of 5G technology, thus mobile and fixed broadband have been merging into a single market. The New York State Broadband Program Office states on its website that, “many service providers use a combination of wireline and wireless technologies to provide hybrid broadband service to their customers.”  

One major reason why broadband, fixed or mobile, is scarcest in rural areas is due to the high cost of “laying” fiber, cables, and lines over vast distances. Tug Hill has unique challenges too considering the quantity of waterways, wetlands, and gulfs that make infrastructure expansion costly. Hybrid broadband infrastructure and satellite internet can be potential solutions, depending on the unique characteristics of an unserved location.  

Concept  Definition 
Served   Any location with at least two internet service providers and at least one such provider offers high-speed internet service.  
Underserved   Any location which has fewer than two internet service providers or has internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps download but less than 100 Mbps download available.  
Unserved   Any location which has no fixed wireless service or wired service with speeds of 25 Mbps download or less available.  
High-speed internet service   Internet service of at least 100 Mbps download and at least 10 Mbps upload.  
Broadband service   A mass-market retail service that provides the capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communications service, but shall not include dial-up service.  
Latency  Amount of time it takes for data to travel from one point to another, specifically the delay needed to produce the outcome of an internet request. 
Location   A geographic area smaller than a census tract.  
Internet service provider   Any person, business or organization qualified to do business in this state that provides individuals, corporations, or other entities with the ability to connect to the internet.  
Throughput   The speed you actually experience when you access the internet in terms of how much data can be transmitted from one place to another in a given time. Throughput is impacted by what happens between your router and your device, and it’s affected by everything including the type of device, number of devices connected, the location of your router (including what it is next to), interference from your neighbors’ Wi-Fi and the wiring in your home.