How do Americans connect to the Internet?

Internet service providers (ISPs) — private companies, electric and telephone cooperatives, or municipal utilities — own and operate broadband networks, which use a range of technologies to connect customers to the Internet. These technologies are generally described in terms of “speeds,” data transfer rates, “latency,” and the amount of time needed to transmit data to its destination and back over the network, for the connections they provide. Understanding how different technologies work and their relative strengths and limitations is important for policy makers involved in discussions about broadband financing and deployment.

Most broadband customers in the United States are connected to the Internet by a wired connection, which includes a physical line—typically fiber-optic, mixed coaxial, or copper telephone wire—that runs on a chassis. There are three basic types of wired service:

  • cable internet service It is provided by cable television companies over a hybrid network that uses fiber lines to connect to neighboring nodes and then coaxial cable to transmit data to individual residences and businesses. Cable TV providers have added high-speed Internet access to their offerings through the Data over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS), an international communications standard that allows high-bandwidth data transmission to be added to existing cable television systems. Cable service offers uneven speeds – downloads are faster than uploads. Cable, available primarily in urban and suburban areas, is the most popular type of Internet service in the United States and continues to grow. Major cable companies added more than 4.8 million subscribers in 2020 – the most since 2006.
  • digital subscriber line Internet service (DSL) uses a two-wire copper telephone line that allows consumers to use the Internet and a landline phone simultaneously without interrupting either connection. DSL varies in terms of speed and distance the signal will travel; The most efficient models can provide speeds of up to 24 megabits per second (Mbps) on a single phone wire, which is below the FCC’s definition of broadband. However, some companies tie two sets of telephone wires together and offer speeds of up to 48 Mbps. The highlight of DSL is that the data speed decreases the greater the distance: the greater the distance the signal has to travel, the slower it is, and as a result, DSL speeds vary across the community and even within a neighborhood. DSL is the oldest internet service technology currently in use in the United States and has been losing customers due to its slow speeds. As a result, ISPs started phasing out the service.
  • fiber optic to homes FTTH, otherwise known as Fiber to the Premises (FTTP), can provide the fastest speeds with low latency. The service relies on fiber-optic cables — flexible, hair-thin strands of glass — that can transmit large amounts of data at high rates. In the latest networks, fiber can provide speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps), or 10,000 Mbps, with a latency of 1.5 milliseconds. Fiber also provides symmetrical download and upload speeds. It is more future-proof than other technologies; It can be continually overclocked to higher speeds over time with limited maintenance. For all of these reasons, policymakers should prioritize investment in fiber when allocating broadband funds at the state and federal level.

However, FTTH coverage remains much lower than cable coverage. According to the Broadband Fiber Optic Association, fiber accounts for 20% of the US Internet services market share, compared to just over 50% for cable. To help expand the availability of fiber networks nationwide, ISPs have committed to investing $60 billion over the next five years to build FTTH. The coronavirus fund guidelines for state and local financial recovery funds and the US Rescue Plan Capital Project Fund prioritize financing for fiber infrastructure projects.

In rural areas and places with low residential density or long distances between homes, last-mile wired lines – the part of the network that connects the ISP to the customer – are prohibitively expensive. However, ISPs are increasingly using fixed wireless or satellite service to provide Internet access to homes and businesses in these remote communities.

Fixed wireless connections are transmitted via towers, similar to cellular phone towers, to an antenna installed at the customer’s premises. Like DSL, fixed wireless connections become slower with increasing distance from the transmission tower, so service is fast and reliable for consumers near the tower but slower and less reliable for those far away, especially if the line of sight is between the tower and the transmission tower. Antenna is off. Although fixed wireless covers less than half of American homes so far, it provides a reliable last-mile option for rural areas, especially when the towers are connected with fiber cables.

Similarly, satellite internet may represent another alternative for consumers in rural or remote areas. Conventional geostationary satellite technologies use individual satellites orbiting more than 22,000 miles above Earth to provide service at speeds of up to 40 Mbps. However, geostationary satellite service has a high latency of 900ms, which creates challenges for customers seeking to use real-time applications, such as online gaming and video streaming. A new technology, Low Earth Orbit Broadband, uses constellations of satellites in orbit 200-800 miles above Earth to deliver greater reliability, faster speeds, and lower latency compared to GSO, but it does not yet have the ability to support Large subscriber bases reached by dominant wireline service providers.

More than 83% of people in the United States use the Internet on their smartphone, tablet, or other mobile device. And these devices are the only way to connect to the Internet for 15% of Americans. In general, because mobile access and wired connections offer different speeds and functionality, consumers tend to view the two types of service as complementary and subscribe to both if they have the means.

Internet service providers offer mobile communications via three technologies:

  • 3G: 3G, usually with network speeds of less than 1 Mbps. Although some rural cell towers still use 3G, this technology has been gradually phased out in most parts of the country, cutting internet access for older cell phones, as well as some medical, security and personal devices.
  • 4G: 4G, usually with network speeds over 1 Mbps. Most 4G networks in the US use the LTE (Long Term Evolution) standard, which provides speeds of up to 100Mbps. Most of the contemporary mobile devices are connected to the internet through a 4G connection.
  • 5G: 5G, usually with network speeds of 1 Gbps or more. All four of these connections are currently in use, but the country is in transition. Although 3G is still used in some rural areas, most people are connected to the 4G network, and service providers are actively deploying 5G.

Wireless infrastructure relies on spectrum – electromagnetic radio frequencies – to transmit data to end-user devices. Spectrum may be “licensed,” which are certain frequencies that the FCC grants to individual ISPs for their exclusive use, or “unlicensed,” that is, available for use by anyone. Different technologies require a different spectrum. For example, 5G uses higher frequencies that enable data to travel faster but not as much as lower frequencies, and thus requires a greater density of receivers and transmitters to transmit data over long distances compared to 4G and previous generations of wireless service.

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