With the Internet becoming more and more intertwined with every aspect of human life, many governments and individuals have come to view universal broadband connectivity as a necessity. Many areas in both developed and developing nations, however, lack affordable broadband Internet access. One major difficulty in discussing broadband availability is the absence of a universal definition of “broadband.” In addition, broadband availability is influenced by a number of factors, including population density, geography, communications infrastructure, market conditions, and government regulations.
There is no widely agreed-upon definition for what constitutes a broadband connection. Speeds as low as 768 kilobits per second (kbps) are advertised as “high-speed,” but the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, for example, considers the minimum speed for broadband to be 2 megabits per second (mbps). In other nations, speeds vary greatly, and what is considered to be a broadband Internet connection in one country may be too slow for in another.
Population density is a major factor contributing to broadband availability. In urban environments, the cost of installing new equipment can be earned back quickly because of the greater number of potential customers. Some broadband technologies are also better suited to urban settings than rural locales. The fastest Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) services, for example, are often only available to customers within 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) or less of the telephone company’s central office.
Unfortunately, technology that could bring high-speed Internet service to rural areas can also be hampered by geography. Satellite service requires a clear view of the sky, which can be a problem for users in valleys or people who live near large trees or other obstructions. Wireless technologies are also limited, with Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) requiring a clear line-of-sight for the best connections and WiFi; this is restricted to only a few hundred feet (about 150 meters) in most situations.
Broadband availability has also been determined to some extent by existing telecommunications infrastructure. Newer fiber-optic cables for Internet service are often installed next to older communications infrastructure. Telecommunications companies have already secured the right-of-way for this older infrastructure, making it easier to install new cables. For some technologies, older infrastructure may be incompatible with broadband or too costly to upgrade.
Government policy can have a huge impact on broadband availability. Japan, for example, offers tax incentives for companies that provide very high-speed fiber-optic service. Finland has declared access to broadband to be a legal right, and is promising to bring 100-megabit connections to every one of its citizens by 2015. The U.S. has also taken action to bring broadband service to an estimated seven million Americans who lacked it as of 2010. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included $7.2 billion U.S. Dollars (USD) in grants to increase rural broadband availability.