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Next–Gen Broadband – Optimizing Your Current Broadband Connection (Part 1)

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2/9/2013 10:35:59 AM

How is high-speed internet keeping pace with our insatiable appetite for content?

Broadband has evolved considerably over the last decade or so in the United States. Whereas just a few years ago, large parts of the country were relegated to pokey 56K dial-up connections over standard phone lines, now multi-megabit broadband connections are commonplace and speed increases are being introduced regularly. In fact, in some test markets, broadband at gigabit speeds is on the way. And yes, that’s gigabits with a “G”, as in roughly 17,800x more bandwidth than 56K dial-up.

How is high-speed internet keeping pace?

How is high-speed internet keeping pace?

We also have many more choices today. Connecting to the Internet used to mean firing up ADL for millions of users. Now, though, most consumers can choose between multiple service providers, which plenty of bandwidth for all but the most demanding users. Broadband may not be universally available here in the states just yet, but availability is far better than it was, and it’s consistently improving.

Despite myriad advances made to the county’s broadband infrastructure, the story is not all good. According to a few recent studies, the United States still trails some other nations in multiple broadband-related categories, including average connection speed is more than double of the United States 16.7Mbps vs. 6.1Mbps and the United States ranks 36th in overall connectivity.

There’s more to broadband than just bandwidth and penetration, however, and we hope to fill you in on the details here. Our goal is to help you to better understand the various technologies available now and outline some of the advances coming in the future. We’ve also got some practical tips for changing ISPs and optimizing your current broadband connection on tap, as well.

Pick you platform

Get connected over copper, fiber, wireless, or satellite

There are a number of different ways consumers in the United States have access to high-speed broadband Internet connections. Some, like DSL, leverage existing telephone network infrastructures, while others, like satellite or LTE wireless, use relatively new technologies. Although broadband isn’t accessible to everyone in the country, there are multiple options available for most consumers and the choices that are available continue to mature and evolve.

The most common broadband connection types in the United States include digital subscriber line (or DSL), cable, fiber optic-to-home solutions, wireless, and to a lesser extent satellite. Wireline solutions like cable and fiber-to-home will typically offer the highest-bandwidth,, lowest-latency connections, and DSL is usually the most affordable, but all of the connection types mentioned here have multi-megabit plans available from numerous Internet service providers (ISPs) in many parts of the country. Before we dig in, also note that all of the broadband connection technologies we discuss here are sometimes referred to as “last mile” or “network edge” connections. What that means is that they’re the connection types used by Internet service providers to make the link between end users and the core backbones of the Internet.

xDSL

According to the most recent data available on the National Broadband Map, DSL is the second most accessible broadband technology in the United States, behind only the various wireless technologies. In the locations where high-speed broadband is available, one form of DSL or another is offered to 88.9 percent of those customers.

Although “DSL” is a term thrown around freely, it actually encompasses an entire family of technologies, which includes asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), symmetric digital subscriber line (SDSL), integrated services digital network (ISDN), rate-adaptive digital subscriber line (RADSL), and high bit-rate digital subscriber line (HDSL), among a few others. DSL leverages the copper cabling used throughout the telephone network to transmit digital data, and as such, the bandwidth offered by the various technologies will vary based on a few factors, like the quality of the physical connection and distance from the exchange, sometimes called the “central office”.

DSL is typically more affordable than other solutions because it’s cheaper to implement over the existing telephone network, versus deploying new, high-bandwidth fiber cables over the same expanse. Though sometimes cheaper, many DSL solutions can still offer significant bandwidth to end users. Sonic.net, for example, is one of the best-regarded DSL providers in the nation, with plans that offer download speeds of up to 20Mbps. It’s able to offer DSL speeds so far above the national average of about 4Mbps by using VDSL2 bonding technology that essentially links dual copper pairs into single connections. Other DSL providers also leverage bonding technology to increase the effective amount of available bandwidth to end users, but the fastest ISPs are typically concentrated in the more densely populated areas of the country, like California and the Northeast.

DSL modems like the D-Link DSL-520B connect through standard copper phone to provide broadband Internet access

DSL modems like the D-Link DSL-520B connect through standard copper phone to provide broadband Internet access

A typical DSL setup in a home consists of little more than a filter (or filters) that are used to separate voice and data signals between telephones and a DSL modem. The technology hasn’t changed much on recent years, so massive speed increases haven’t been offered by many DSL providers, but the technology is mature and reliable, and should suit the needs of mainstream consumers. In the future, however, large bandwidth gains are still possible with DSL. Alcatel-Lucent, for example, announced that through a technology advanced by Bell Labs, it has achieved 300Mbps over two DSL lines (through bonding) at a distance of 400 meters. The technology works by level-age bonding, something called Phantom mode, and vectoring. Phantom mode creates a third, virtual pair on top of the existing two pairs used in the DSL lines. And then vectoring technology filters out interference and crosstalk among them all. The bandwidth of the physical and the virtual pairs are then combined into a single, ultra-high-bandwidth pipe.

Cable internet

On some level, cable Internet access is similar to DSL. However, instead of using the telephone network, cable Internet leverages the cable television infrastructure to provide a broadband Internet connection. Also like DSL, cable Internet is relatively connection technology in the United States. In areas where broadband is available, cable Internet access is an option for 85.2 percent of consumers.

Many of the technologies employed by cable Internet access providers are determined by the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, or DOSIS. DOCSIS was initially developed by CableLabs, a not-for-profit research and development consortium founded by a number of cable television providers, along with a host of additional contributors, including the likes of Broadcom, Cisco, Conexant, Intel, Motorola, Netgear, Texas Instruments, and a handful of other companies.

The Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, or DOCSIS, is used by many cable television operations to provide broadband Internet access over their existing network using a cable modem, like the Motorola SB6120 pictured here

The Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification, or DOCSIS, is used by many cable television operations to provide broadband Internet access over their existing network using a cable modem, like the Motorola SB6120 pictured here

Cable Internet is also one of the more mature broadband technologies offered in the United States and bandwidth available to end users is relatively high. If we disregard some fledgling fiber-to-home solutions, cable fledgling is among the fastest in the nation. It is not uncommon for cable service providers to offer premium plans in the 50Mbps to 100Mbps (download) range, at prices below $100 month. It is also common to see cable Internet included in “triple play” type packages that bundle Internet, television, and phone services on a single bill.

Although fast and relatively affordable, one of the disadvantages of cable Internet is that bandwidth is shared not only on the provider’s core network, but among smaller nodes, or groups of residents, as well, which can lead to slowdowns during peak usage times. If there aren’t numerous users concurrently consuming large amounts of bandwidth, the slowdowns may be imperceptible, but on more congested networks the slowdowns can be significant.

Though already fairly mature, bandwidth gains are still likely as providers improve their network and implement more 3.0 allows for bonding of multiple upstream and downstream channels to increase total available bandwidth. The specification calls for hardware to support a minimum of four upstream/ downstream channels, which can each offer a maximum of 42.88Mbps, but there is no maximum number of channels defined. An eight-channel bonded configuration could theoretically offer a connection speed of up to 343Mbps.

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