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A primer on broadband

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What is broadband?

Put simply, the term "broadband" refers to a high-speed connection to the Internet. But the answer to the question doesn't stay simple.

First, there are a number of technologies that can provide this connection. The main ones are DSL over copper phone lines, cable service over coaxial cable, fiber optic cable and wireless signals coming from fixed towers or from satellites. Each of these has its own characteristics involving price, area of coverage and technology constraints.

And second, the definition of what is high-speed is changing regularly. Late in 2010, for example, the Federal Communications Commission officially raised the speed that it considers broadband, overnight expanding the geographic areas that are considered unserved. Dial-up service, still some people's choice, is not considered broadband service.

How fast is fast enough?

The answer depends on what you want to do. A guide:

Less than 1 megabit per second — Allows you to send email, browse simple websites on the Internet, watch low-quality video on YouTube.

From 1 to 5 megabits per second — Allows browsing of complex web sites, attaching large files to email, streaming music, performing basic telecommuting functions, watching some video.

From 5 to 10 megabits per second — Allows more complex telecommuting, sharing large files, watching high-definition video, playing sophisticated games, participating in basic remote diagnostic medical functions and remote education.

From 10 to 100 megabits — Allows full telemedicine and educational services, telecommuting with high-quality video, using high definition surveillance, playing very complex games.

At least two caveats apply: The speed you get can vary from one time to another and often does not reach the maximum speed your provider advertises as "up to" a certain speed. And very often, available services provide a substantially slower speed for uploading material to the web than the download speed for obtaining material from the web.

In 2010, the Minnesota Legislature adopted recommendations of the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Report a year earlier that said every person in the state should have available by 2015 a download speed of 10 to 20 megabits and an upload speed of five to 10 megabits.

The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a National Broadband Plan that says the basic service all people should have access to is a download speed of 4 megabits and an upload speed of 1 megabit. This is roughly what a typical broadband customer gets today.

Who provides service?

By far most people buy service from either their phone company or their cable TV company. So Qwest, Comcast, Mediacom, Frontier and a host of smaller phone companies provide service for the bulk of Minnesotans. For the most part, phone companies provide service over the copper lines they have invested heavily in over decades, and technology has increased the speeds this DSL service can deliver. Likewise, cable companies deliver broadband service via the coaxial cable they invested in for TV signals, and here, too, technology has increased speeds.

Fixed wireless providers like USI Wireless in Minneapolis provide alternatives to the phone and cable companies.

Big national companies like Verizon and Sprint offer mobile wireless Internet service via their 3G and 4G (third generation and fourth generation) service.

Some phone companies, typically small independently owned or cooperative operations, have led the way in Minnesota in installing fiber optic cable, which has a number of advantages in the long run. It can be much faster than DSL or cable and more reliable than wireless.

You can find the providers for any given point in Minnesota by exploring the ConnectMinnesota map.

Should Internet service be a private or a public good?

A huge question has arisen over how to pay for investment in the infrastructure, whatever technology it uses.

To this point, for most Minnesotans, this has been a question of the private market. Existing private service companies have spent millions to upgrade and expand their services.

In some places, however, communities have created their own organizations to supply service. Monticello and Windom are the most prominent examples of community-owned providers, and others like Sibley and Lake counties are considering taking that leap, largely because of concerns that existing providers haven't moved fast enough to improve service. Rural areas have been the focus of these efforts.

There are hybrids as well, that involve partnerships between private providers and local government officials. The agreement between Lac qui Parle County and Farmers Mutual Telephone Co. is an example.

Is wireless the answer in remote places?

Some people argue that it is the most cost effective means to provide service where homes and businesses are scattered and where laying fiber is expensive.

Others consider wireless second class because speeds will never match good wired connections and because terrain can wreak havoc in many areas. Satellite service has the limiting characteristic of slight delays that make, for example, video phone connections difficult.

What is the universal service fund?

For years, phone customers have paid a fee on their bills that has gone to rural telephone providers to supply phone service to areas the market might not otherwise support. The FCC is proposing to shift the use of that money to pay for broadband access, on the similar theory that it is the main telecommunications infrastructure of the nation and that all residents deserve a level of service.

While there is substantial support for this shift, proposals are being watched closely. Small rural providers worry that they will lose the funding they have received and used to help build Internet service. Instead, they argue, it will go to large providers that have been slower to build out their own networks.

Others suggest that much of the money will go to ensure wireless coverage, which many deem inadequate.

What is federal stimulus money doing in Minnesota?

More than $200 million was awarded to a variety of Minnesota projects last year. Some of this is going for large "backbone" connections between different parts of the state; some for specific small-area projects bringing fiber directly to people's homes. In addition, some has been aimed at increasing Minnesotans' level of use of the Internet, particularly among low income and older residents.

Does the state have a role?

In 2009, the Minnesota Ultra High-Speed Broadband Task Force finished work on analysis and recommendations for how the state should stack up against the rest of the world. In 2010, the Legislature adopted the recommendations into law but authorized no money and issued no directive for carrying them out.

Nonetheless, the Commerce Department has established a task force that late in 2010 issued a report analyzing the state's progress.

In addition, the Commerce Department and the organization ConnectMinnesota in February 2010 issued another report on the state of broadband, analyzing residents' patterns of use and the availability of service around the state.