What is Broadband?
And why is broadband access so important?
“Broadband” is another term for high-speed internet access. In the United States, broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a connection with at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.1
This definition is important because it’s the benchmark for reliable internet access in the United States and shapes the way we interpret population data and establish public policy.
Why is broadband important?
Broadband access is important both for individuals and communities. Broadband gives people access to jobs, education, health care, entertainment, and civic engagement. Broadband infrastructure brings economic growth to communities, as well as an increased ability to offer essential services to community members more efficiently and conveniently. It’s an investment that can both bring in more money and save money in the long run.
What counts as broadband?
Any type of connection that can meet the FCC guidelines of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed can be classified as broadband. This includes DSL, cable, fiber, fixed-wireless, 4G, 5G, and satellite connections.
The only type of internet connection that can’t reach broadband speeds is dial-up. But other types of connection can fall short of this benchmark too. For example, some DSL and satellite plans don’t meet the 25 Mbps download speed necessary to be considered broadband by the FCC.
The threshold for broadband could be increasing
The 25 Mbps standard for broadband has been in place since 2015, but a lot has changed over the last decade. Jessica Rosenworcel, the current chairwoman of the FCC has proposed increasing the minimum speeds for a connection to be considered broadband to 100 Mbps downloads and 20 Mbps uploads.6 This would impact regulations and government funding, promoting the deployment of faster connections in underserved areas.
The FCC is currently deadlocked on this and many other issues, as the US Senate has refused to fill the empty seat on the Commission for over a year. Once this seat is filled, however, this change could come quickly.
What can I do with broadband?
A broadband connection gives you the ability to do most common online activities without any problems. You can shop and bank online, stream video from sites like Netflix, play online games, and use social media. You also have enough upload speed with broadband to use video chat, which opens up things like online education and telehealth.
Access to broadband internet has wide reaching effects. It improves economic stability, provides opportunities for education, increases social supports, provides more civic agency, and is associated with improved overall health in areas where it’s widely available. This is why bringing broadband to underserved areas is so important.
What can’t I do with broadband?
While you can do a lot with a connection that meets even the minimum requirements for broadband in the US, some activities require a much faster internet connection. Livestreaming on sites like Twitch needs a lot more upload capacity to get smooth video than you’ll get with a basic broadband connection.
Speed is also shared among the devices on your home Wi-Fi network, so while a 25 Mbps connection is enough to watch video in 4K, that’s true only if your TV is the only thing in the house using your download speed.
If you have kids watching cartoons on their iPads or roommates doing homework on their laptops, you’re going to need more speed to share among your devices. For a good upload and download speed, we generally suggest at least 10 Mbps of download speed per person and at least 5 Mbps of upload speed.
There’s also more to an internet connection than just speed. Latency measures the delay for information to reach your computer and is important for online games and real-time communication like video chat. Data caps are another issue that certain types of connections have to deal with. Even if you have the speed, restrictive data caps can make it impossible to watch online videos or perform other data-heavy tasks.
Who has broadband?
Broadband infrastructure of some kind reaches over 96% of the US population, though some of these areas have very few internet provider options. Additionally, gaps in broadband coverage disproportionately impact people in rural areas and tribal lands. Nearly 15% of people in rural areas and nearly 18% of people on tribal lands have no access to broadband infrastructure, compared to just over 1% of people in urban areas who lack access.2
Fortunately, almost everyone in the US can get broadband speeds via a satellite connection, even in areas lacking broadband infrastructure. While satellite internet is an important resource for people living in rural areas, it also has several disadvantages. Satellite internet is more expensive than plans of similar speeds on other connection types, and satellite’s high latency and low data caps make many online activities impossible.
The difference in the availability and quality of broadband connections between urban and rural areas is one of the major factors behind the digital divide—the gap between those who reap the social and economic benefits of the internet and those who do not. This is also why many of the FCC’s initiatives are geared toward bridging this gap.3
Do I have broadband?
If you have an internet plan that advertises download speeds of more than 25 Mbps, you probably have broadband. There are some reasons that your internet might be slower than the speed you’re paying for and some connections, like DSL, can sometimes have very low upload speeds that don’t meet the 3 Mbps threshold.
The quickest way to know for sure that you have broadband is to take a speed test.
How much do you know about your current internet connection?
Do you know what upload and download speeds you’re actually getting? How about your latency? If you’re curious, download our speed test app.
How much do you know about your current internet connection?
Do you know what upload and download speeds you’re actually getting? How about your latency? If you’re curious, take our speed test.
How do I get broadband?
You can get broadband from all major internet service providers in the US. They each offer broadband of one kind or another. If you sign up for an internet plan with one of these providers, they will install an internet connection in your home to give you broadband access if it doesn’t already have it (although this often involves a separate installation fee).
The bigger question is finding out which providers are available in your area and which ones offer the type of connection and speeds that you want.
How does broadband work?
Broadband works by giving your home a fast connection to the networks that make up the internet. The internet is made up of many different networks of high-speed fiber-optic cables which communicate with each other, giving users access to web servers all around the world.
The difference between broadband and slower internet connections is the speed of the part that connects your home to the wider internet. This connection, often referred to as the “last mile,” is the bottleneck between your home network and the servers of companies like Google and Amazon. So if that connection is faster, your overall experience on the internet will be better.
The future of broadband
Although broadband is often used in a more precise, technical manner than “fast” or “high-speed” internet, there is no universal definition of what broadband is. Canada, for example, defines broadband as a connection with a 50 Mbps download speed and a 10 Mbps upload speed, and many other countries use different terms for their speed benchmarks.4
Even the current definition of broadband in the United States will most likely change as the needs of internet users evolve. Politicians are already pushing to change the definition to 100 Mbps for both download and upload speeds to reflect the current needs of internet users.5
As technology improves and people start using the internet in more parts of their everyday lives, the definition of broadband will have to change to match. By having a realistic benchmark for internet connections, we can better plan infrastructure and shape public policy to ensure that everyone has the same access to the economic and social benefits of the internet.
- Federal Communications Commission, “2015 Broadband Report,” February 4, 2015. Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Federal Communications Commission, “Fixed Broadband Deployment,” Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Federal Communications Commission, “Bridging the Digital Divide for All Americans,” Accessed April 20, 2021.
- Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, “What You Should Know about Internet Speeds,” January 20, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2021.
- Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, “100 Mbps Uploads and Downloads Should Be US Broadband Standard, Senators Say,” March 4, 2021. Accessed April 21, 2021.
- Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica, “FCC chair: Speed standard of 25Mbps down, 3Mbps up isn’t good enough anymore,” July 25, 2023. Accessed August 8, 2023.
Author - Peter Christiansen
Peter Christiansen writes about satellite internet, rural connectivity, livestreaming, and parental controls for HighSpeedInternet.com. Peter holds a PhD in communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.
Editor - Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.