What is Broadband And How Does it Work?

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Around here we talk a lot about broadband. From its promising uses for distance learning and home offices to gaming and streaming a diverse range of entertainment, broadband has become entwined in all our lives.

But sometimes it’s important to take a step back to look at the basics. What exactly is broadband? What is this marvelous invention that travels through cables and the air to allow our computers and phones to connect to the world? Let’s demystify broadband and help you understand the technology behind the magic once and for all. And then we’ll also explain why it’s so important for all Americans (hint: it goes way beyond binge-watching your favorite show). 

Broadband feels like magic. Here’s how it actually works. 

The term “broadband” is short for “wide bandwidth data transmission” – now that’s a mouthful! Using mediums such as coaxial or fiber-optic cables, radio waves, and satellite transmission, broadband is capable of traveling over long distances and at high speeds. And as opposed to the dial-up connections that preceded it, broadband is always on and ready to transmit data, voice, and video.

Although the terms “broadband” and “Wi-Fi”” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Broadband is the connection that sends and receives data between the outside world and your home modem. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is the wireless connection between your modem and all of your non-wired devices, including computers, phones, tablets, and smart appliances. In short, broadband goes from your internet provider to your modem, and Wi-Fi takes over from there.

Broadband is a critical need.

Now that we’ve gotten the technical stuff out of the way, let’s consider why broadband is so important. We already know that broadband helps us stay informed and entertained and connected to loved ones all over the world. But it’s way more than an entertainment outlet, it’s also a lifeline to opportunity. Online job searches and applications, digital businesses and ecommerce—none of this is possible without deep broadband infrastructure. Broadband also brings education to those who cannot get to school and work to those who cannot get to the office, something that became so invaluable during the pandemic that it has transformed both education and the workplace. And thanks to broadband, telemedicine can make everything from doctors’ consultations to surgery possible at a distance. It’s not an overstatement to say that broadband has reshaped our society and expanded opportunity—for those who have access. 

Broadband drives economic growth. 

For the economy as a whole, broadband equates to jobs and growth. Consider that as the fourth-largest sector in the U.S., the internet contributes a whopping 10% of its GDP, adding over $2 trillion to the economy and creating nearly 20 million direct and indirect jobs. According to a recent study, moreover, the expansion of high-speed internet across the United States would provide an extra $160 billion-a-year boost in economic gains.    

These are not just abstract numbers. During the economic downturn provoked by the COVID-19 crisis, broadband kept our economy afloat, preventing mass unemployment and ensuring that vital services such as mental health and disease tracking could continue to be performed. Indeed, broadband has spawned a host of new ways to make money and gain skills, from the freelancers’ marketplace TaskRabbit to the online courses available at Coursera and EdX. According to Pew Research, 90% of Americans believe the internet has been good for them personally, with 87% agreeing that it has been important for them personally during the pandemic.         

Expanding broadband to everyone 

Broadband has become such an integral part of our lives that we often take it for granted. The USDA reports that 22.3% of Americans in rural areas and 27.7% of Americans in Tribal lands still lack broadband coverage. That’s why it is incredibly important that Congress prioritize efforts to extend this vital service to those underserved communities that lack broadband and that would tremendously benefit from being connected to the rest of the world. 

To learn more about this pressing issue and to sign our petition calling on Congress to make the necessary investment in high-speed broadband to boost growth and close the digital divide, click here.