The times they are a changing

Everyone knows what broadband is, right?  Well, maybe…maybe not. Actually, many people have a functional understanding of broadband that revolves around their own needs.  “I need broadband to work from home.”  “I need broadband to do my schoolwork.”  “I need broadband for my business.”  Like that.  Generally, they are saying they need fast reliable internet speed with low latency…so they can do what they want and need to do.

But here’s the thing – what we all want and need to do keeps escalating as it relates to internet connectivity.  We are online more, we stream more, we game more, we have more connected devices, we reside in “virtual” places more (think-online doctor’s appointments for a simple example).  In other words, “broadband” is a moving target…and lately, it has been moving fast.

Think of this: “way back” in 2014, less than a decade ago, broadband was defined by the FCC as 4 mbps download speed and 1 mbps upload. Yes, that short time ago, that is how we defined “broadband.”  Heck, by that definition practically all of us have broadband. 

What is Broadband?

But even in 2014, as smartphones were beginning to saturate the market, the demand for internet speed was growing briskly.  So, in 2015 the FCC changed the definition; broadband became 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload.  This was to align the definition with the growing demand for speed and low latency resulting mostly from the ubiquitous nature of smart phones.  This also meant that what we thought was broadband, now fell short.

Fast forward to 2021 and there is much buzz and activity around broadband generally and the definition specifically.  This is a pretty big deal.  That is if you think it important that tens, and even hundreds, of billions of dollars are flowing into telecom because of broadband demand expansion.  Now add the anticipated demand from the growing phenomenon of 5G.  The simple fact is that the massive explosion of streaming devices and accelerated customer participation in growing ways is placing geometric stress on old internet and telecom infrastructure.  And internet service providers (ISPs) need to be able to offer “broadband” by whatever its current definition, to remain competitive, to hold on to their subscribers, and attract new ones.

The FCC defines high-speed broadband as download speeds of up to 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of up to 3 megabits per second (25/3 Mbps). … The reason the definition matters is because the federal government has a goal to ensure that affordable, high-speed broadband is available to all. Mar 4, 2021

This matters a lot because the newest technologies in communication mean nothing if the underlying infrastructure will not support the new capabilities.  And it is because of this need that the definition of broadband is once again changing.  And because the definition is changing the activity around deploying fiber optic cable both inside (ISP) and out (OSP) is likely to further explode going forward.  Which is saying something.

Currently the Fiber Broadband Association, a bellwether industry infrastructure group, defines broadband as 100 mbps down and 100 mbps up, or “100 symmetrical.”  And, the association, well respected by the FCC and legislative branches, is being listened to on that issue.  As you might imagine, legacy internet providers are fighting back on that definition as it would render much of their current, more historic, internet capabilities as “non-broadband.”  Yet, even with the considerable clout of the legacy big-dogs, current and pending infrastructure legislation defines broadband as 100 mbps down and 20 mbps up.  That is a big change, and it matters a lot.  Meanwhile the Fiber Broadband Association, through much research and many industry inputs, is predicting households will require 1gig (that’s 1000 mbps) internet service by the end of this decade to support the growing trends of use and gadget proliferation.  So, they are saying that to do what we all want to be able to do, we will all likely need ten times the most recent definition of broadband to be adequately served.  Wow.

What does this mean?  It means that the backbone of infrastructure to support this massive trend will likely rely heavily on fiber optic cable.  Fiber optic cable currently being laid will support 100 mbps now and it will support 1 gig, 2 gigs, or even 10 gigs later.  In fact, the association refers to fiber optic cable as “future proof.”  If you add to that the massive fiber-connected or compatible inside-plant gadgetry for communication, efficiencies, and even autonomous manufacturing, you begin to get a sense of the wave of opportunity coming for businesses that make the goods, install them, and maintain them both inside and outside.  As active as broadband infrastructure deployment is now, much more is coming as needs and definitions change.

So, the definition of broadband matters…a lot.  And, that definition will continue to evolve and trigger more and more robust infrastructure buildout and related opportunities, according to industry experts, over the next decade…at least.  That is a long runway indeed.