Electronic Design

Broadband's Evolution

Broadband refers to those companies that provide high-speed Internet service to homes and small businesses. It includes cable TV companies, traditional telephone carriers with DSL, carriers building out fiber-optic networks, and, to a smaller extent, some satellite TV and powerline delivery services. You probably already use one of these services—as 42% of all U.S. homes now claim to have some kind of broadband service.

That's expected to change, though, as cable continues to lose market share to DSL. Some experts have even predicted that DSL could pass cable subscriptions later this year or next for sure as phone companies roll out faster versions and drop prices. DSL is already the world leader with more than a 60% share of the broadband market.

The U.S. still lags in broadband adoption and currently holds 12th place in terms of the percentage of the population with broadband service. Japan, Korea, Iceland, and many European countries are way ahead.

As for the newer services, Verizon is rolling out its passive optical networks (PONs) in Florida, Texas, and the Washington, D.C., area. It is the fastest service available (if you can get it), with rates from 5 to 50 Mbits/s and a potential of 100 Mbits/s. AT&T and Bell South are considering fiber in some areas as well. It will provide a base for the distribution of Internet Protocol TV in competition with cable.

As for broadband over powerline (BPL), some testing and limited early adoption continues. However, this controversial service causes major RF interference for ham radio and other wireless services in some areas. Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission seems to refuse to enforce its rather tough interference rules against the utilities offering BPL.

BPL isn't really fast enough to compete with cable, DSL, fiber, or even wireless broadband. Its main application may end up being a way to remotely read electric, gas, or water meters. Better still, let's hope this hapless technology dies a quiet early death. It's a perfect example illustrating that just because you can do something with technology doesn't necessarily mean that you should.

Future competition will come from broadband wireless access (BWA), namely WiMAX. With all the current activity by major players, WiMAX may do more than take some market share from cable and DSL. It also could further boost overall broadband subscriptions, especially in underserved rural areas and small towns. Current DSL suppliers have got to be looking at future alternatives that are faster. Despite the advances of DSL, its range and speed are still severely limited, and it will eventually hit the wall in competing with cable. As a result, WiMAX, with its lower infrastructure costs, may be just the answer.

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