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Broadly speaking, it’s faster

Broadband Internet access has been the talk of the telecommunications sector for more than five years. In the following issues, WA Business News will focus on what broadband is, how much it costs and which companies offer it.

p Hugh Halloran

EVEN among telecommunications companies there is no consensus on when an Internet connection is considered to no longer be narrowband, but broadband. Some prefer to not define broadband purely with reference to data transfer speeds, preferring to say the term refers to communications that send more than one channel of information down a wire at a time. A common analogy is to point out how multi-lane highways can carry more vehicles to a destination more quickly than a single-lane road.

For most people, defining broadband by speed alone is more immediately meaningful, although opinions differ on a starting point.

Telstra, for example, defines broad-band as any connection faster than what a 56K modem can offer. By this definition even base-level ISDN (International Subscriber Dial-up Net-work) is included despite its minimum nominal speed being only slightly higher (64K) than standard modems. (High-level ISDN can offer speeds up to 2Mbps.)

On the other hand, the United States Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a connection of at least 200kbps, while software company Microsoft suggests 300kbps (kilobits per second) as the benchmark.

Among the technicians WA Business News has spoken to, a speed of 128kbps is broadly accepted as the minimum data transfer rate, although one executive said 2Mbps was his base rate and that, as extremely fast transfer speeds became more accessible, the baseline figure would rise correspondingly.

Generally speaking, broadband is the term applied to such technologies as fibre optic cable, DSL, satellite and wireless.

Each of these works in different ways, offers different capabilities and is available in different areas.

Since DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology, and more specifically ADSL (Asymmetric DSL), came to Perth last year, it has become the main broadband conduit for business and residential customers alike.

DSL splits the signal on existing copper lines into two – one for voice transfer (talking) and the other for data transfer – and while users do need to install special DSL modems, it is relatively easy to set up.

ADSL is just one of a number of DSL technologies. The asymmetric aspect to it is that it offers faster download speeds than upload speeds. For example, it takes you longer to email a one megabyte file to someone than it takes for you to receive the same-sized file. It offers speeds up to about 6Mbps.

Fibre-optic cable is not new in itself, having been invented in the late 1970s. In the 1980s a fibre-optic cable was laid along the seabed between Australia and the United States, but it is only in the past few years that such cable has been more widely available to business and residential users for Internet connections.

Fibre optic cable sends a signal as a pulse of light through a glass or plastic core, which is surrounded by glass housing that reflects the light (the signal) back into the core to prevent it escaping.

Fibre-optics can carry almost limitless amounts of data. At this time links of up to 10 gigabytes per second are available. Such links offer, quite literally, data transfer speeds thousands of times faster than what a typical modem can offer, but there are limitations on its deployment. (This issue will be covered in later articles.)

Fibre-optic cable is not the same as the cable used for pay television and associated Internet connections. This cable is ‘normal’ co-axial cable such as that in TV aerials. Unlike the wireless broadcasting of free-to-air TV, cable systems broadcast signals to decoding boxes at the subscriber’s premises. It offers speeds comparable to DSL technology.

The other two main technologies, wireless and satellite services, are most commonly used where the other technologies cannot be practicably deployed – broadly speaking, rural and regional areas.

Both Optus and Telstra offer two-way satellite connections. Download speeds reach as high as 512kbps while upload speeds are still restricted to either 64kbps or 128kbps. The Federal Government subsidises the installation of satellite equipment in remote areas where phone lines are not available.

Wireless ethernet technology uses either directional or non-directional antennae to transmit signals, over very short ranges (50 to 100 metres) for non-directional antennas and some kilometres, depending on signal strength, for directional antennae. Wireless connections are usually slower than the physical networks but, like satellite technology where cables cannot be installed because of remoteness or cost, they can be useful.

Wireless networks do not relate to just the Internet, but also mobile phones and other applications, such as mobile Eftpos terminals, security/fire alarms and the dispatching of taxi or emergency vehicles.



p Next week’s topic: The cost of broadband access.

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