In the late '90s, broadband mainly meant the ability to download simple Web pages in less-than-agonizing time. But in an era when Netflix video streaming accounts for about a third of U.S. Internet traffic at peak times, does the definition need an update?
Wired broadband Internet service is available to 94 percent of American households, according to the Federal Communications Commission's Eighth Broadband Progress Report, released this week. (The first report was in 1999.) And 60 percent of households are subscribing to those services. But much of that is at a minimal download speed of 768 kilobits per second (kbps) — less than the FCC's offical definition of broadband at 4 megabits per second.
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To put that in perspective, 768 kbps just squeaks by the bare minimum of 500 kbps required to stream Netflix videos.
Look for better video service and the numbers really drop. DVD-quality video needs at least 3 Mbps, according to Netflix, which 38 percent of U.S. households get. For HD video, the percentage of households drops further, though it's hard to say exactly how much. Netflix recommends at least 5 megabits per second, but the FCC reports only the number of households that get 6 Mbps or more, which is nearly 26 percent.
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However, none of these figures accounts for wireless Internet access, which actually outpaces wired service in some communities. The FCC did report on the extent of wireless service in this week's report, but it still doesn't play into the overall assessment of how many American households have broadband.
Maybe some of those wireless-only consumers can try the Netflix Android and iOS apps.