March 2016


Bits and bytes: A bit is the basic unit of information in computing. The name comes from “binary digit,” and each bit has one value, either 1 or 0, or on and off. It usually takes eight bits to represent one character of text; a group of eight bits makes a byte. Data file sizes are measured in bytes while data speed is measured in bits.

Data packets: Data is sent over the Internet as packets. One file is divided into many packets when it is sent, then reassembled into one file again at its destination. Using packets allows data to travel much faster since the individual packets are smaller than the original file and can travel separately over different routes before reassembling. Think small cars in traffic compared to semis.

Upload and download: The direction of the data between the end user and the service provider. Something moving “upstream” or “uploading” is moving from the end user’s computer or device to the service provider, while data moving “downstream” or “downloading” is moving from the service provider to the end user. When referring to speed, “10 down” means data is moving downstream to the end user at a rate of 10 megabits per second or Mbps, while “1 up” means data is moving at a rate of 1 Mbps up from the end user. Downstream is important in applications like streaming video, while upstream is important for end users who need to send large files somewhere, for instance, to a customer or to a hospital.

Symmetric, asymmetric: Whether the up and down speeds match. A rate of 10 Mbps down/10 Mbps up would be symmetric, while a speed of 10/1 would be asymmetric.

Network technology

Broadband: a shorthand term for any high-speed Internet access that is faster than dial-up and, unlike dial-up, is always on. Over the years, as what we use the Internet for has demanded a larger capacity for moving data, different entities have set speed definitions for broadband, implying that an Internet-access service shouldn’t be called “broadband” or “high-speed” unless it meets a certain speed level.

Bandwidth: In the world of Internet service, bandwidth has come to mean the speed of Internet service, measured in bits per second. Not to be confused with bandwidth referring to a range of radio wave frequencies, which may be used in more technical discussions about how data is transferred.

Backbone: The Internet is really a network of networks, and the large trunk lines that connect them are referred to as the “backbone.” It can also be thought of as being like the highway system: the interstate highways are the backbones that connect regions that have highway networks of their own.

Backhaul or middle mile: The section of the network that connects the last mile portion of the network to the service provider’s core network, where the services such as broadband, TV, and phone service originate from.

Last mile: The term that describes the last link connecting the provider’s network to the customer’s premises, either a house or a business. The last mile is the most expensive part of the network to build or upgrade because of the number of units involved. One fiber cable may be trenched down a street, but there may be twenty houses on the street that need to be connected. Upgrading the copper cable connection between each house and the fiber in the street would be the last mile. This last link can also be the reason customers often don’t receive the level of Internet speed advertised by their provider. Since data travels more slowly on copper compared to fiber, when the data hits the copper, it slows down.

Fiber to the home/premises/curb/node: Using fiber to replace all or part of the “last mile” portion of a provider’s network. In fiber to the home, the network is made up of fiber all the way from the provider’s core network to the wall of the house or business. (Although fiber to the home—FTTH—is the common term, fiber to the premises is also used to include both homes and businesses.) Fiber to the curb means fiber has been run down the street past premises, but not up to the building, which is still connected by copper. Fiber to the node means fiber has been run to the network connection point in a neighborhood and no farther. As the connection points fan out, the expense of replacement increases.

Fiber, DSL, cable/coax, wifi, wireless: The different types of materials over which data travels. Sometimes referred to as the “media” or “technology” used in the physical infrastructure of broadband.

Fiber: A fiber optic cable is made up of bundles of hair-thin strands of very pure glass or plastic. Data passes over them in the form of light pulses created by lasers. Because of the purity of the glass or plastic, data can travel much farther and faster on fiber than on copper wires with much less loss of data.

DSL: Digital Subscriber Line. A group of technologies used to transmit data over telephone lines. DSL made high-speed Internet access possible for ordinary consumers without having to do a great deal of rewiring. “ADSL” stands for asymmetric digital subscriber line, meaning the data travels downstream and upstream at different rates. It is the most common form of DSL, and according to Wikipedia, as of 2012 DSL was still the most common technology for broadband access in the world.

Cable or cable modem: The common terms for cable Internet access, which uses the cable TV infrastructure to provide Internet access services (similar to the way DSL uses the phone network infrastructure). Coax is the short term for coaxial cable, the type of cable used in cable TV infrastructure.

Wi-Fi: A technology that produces a wireless local area network allowing a computer or other device to connect to the Internet wirelessly. Equipment in the device communicates with the Wi-Fi router, which is connected to the network with some type of physical cable or wire.  Depending on the system’s power, the area can be as small as a room or cover several square miles. Examples include the Wi-Fi router in a home, a hotspot at a coffee shop, or citywide wifi networks. Wi-Fi is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, an organization that certifies equipment for interoperability. A generic term is “wireless local area network.”

Wireless: A short name for fixed wireless (as opposed to mobile wireless). Fixed wireless technology transmits data between two fixed antennas using radio waves, including microwaves. Unlike Wi-Fi, the radio beams are often kept narrow to keep up the strength of the signal. Antennas are preferably set up high on buildings since line of sight is necessary.

Satellite: Internet service provided via satellite. Satellite can be the only option for remote residents, but it is generally considered slow, less reliable and more expensive than other options if and when they are available.

Mobile: Mobile wireless Internet, accessed via smartphones. Data is transferred between cell phone towers, which are connected to the service provider by fiber.

Internet Protocol: The computer language that allows all the above-mentioned technologies to speak to each other. Before the invention of Internet protocol (IP), telephone networks could only transfer data on other telephone networks, cable networks on other cable networks and so on. IP makes the transfer of data technology-neutral, allowing networks everywhere to transfer data anywhere.


ISP or provider: Internet service provider, an entity that provides access to the Internet and the services available there; who a customer buys Internet service from. In Minnesota, ISPs come in several forms, including privately owned commercial businesses, telephone cooperatives, electric cooperatives, stand-alone Internet service coops, and municipal providers.

Content provider: A business or coop that doesn’t provide the Internet access but provides things to do on the Internet. Netflix and Google are good examples.

ILECs and CLECs: Incumbent local exchange carriers and competitive local exchange carriers. Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone companies operated as legal monopolies in defined territories of service, called exchanges. After the 1996 act and its emphasis on competition, these carriers became incumbent local exchange carriers in their operating territories. At the same time competing local exchange carriers were allowed to enter any territory, build their own infrastructure, and offer services. A large part of communications regulations and the way communications companies operate in Minnesota is still influenced by these territories. For example, ILECs were and still are required to be the carrier of last resort (COLR) within their own exchanges, providing phone service to everyone regardless of cost of operation. 

Peering and transit agreements: Agreements that govern moving one entity’s data traffic over another entity’s network. With peering agreements, network owners allow each others’ traffic to move over their networks at no cost or in some kind of cost-sharing arrangement. With transit agreements, the entity that wants to move the data (it may be an ISP or a content provider like Netflix) must pay the network owner to use their network. (Here’s a good explanation and illustration of how peering and transit agreements work.) If a provider moves its own customers’ data on its own network (e.g., sending an email to someone served by the same provider), there are no fees. If two entities don’t have an agreement, the data may have to travel farther around on networks they do have agreements with, which can also slow traffic down.

Tier 1, 2, 3: Classification indicating the size of a service provider. Tier 1 providers are the largest, such as AT&T, CenturyLink, Zayo, and Verizon, with network systems that span the globe. They can generally send data anywhere without having to pay transit fees, either because they own the network or they have peering agreements with other networks. A Tier 2 network “peers” with many networks, but also has to pay some transit fees. A Tier 3 service provider must pay transit fees to access the Internet.

Agencies and policy

Universal Service Fund: A central principle of the Communications Act of 1934 was that all Americans should have access to a basic level of telecommunications service—universal service—and many policies were enacted to carryout that goal. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 created the Universal Service Fund, a pool of money collected from telecommunications companies and used for building and maintaining telecommunications infrastructure and services in high-cost areas. Four programs are supported by the Fund: the High-Cost Program, Lifeline Program, Rural Health Care Program, and Schools and Libraries Program.Telecommunications companies may charge a Universal Service Fund fee back to customers to help recover some of their contribution to the program.

Connect America Fund: The Connect America Fund was unveiled in 2011 as part of the Universal Service Fund, redesigned to help fund Internet infrastructure in the nation’s high-cost areas. CAF put a new emphasis on Internet service.

Communications Act of 1934: Signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Communications Act of 1934 created a unified regulatory system for communications. Among other things, it created the Federal Communications Commission, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission, and took over the regulation of interstate telephone services from the Interstate Commerce Commission. The central principle of the act was that a comprehensive nationwide communications system “with adequate facilities at reasonable charges” was good for the country.

Telecommunications Act of 1996: Changes in technology, court decisions, and changes in federal policy led to the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in sixty years. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought many significant changes to the industry in the name of competition, including the breakup of AT&T’s near monopoly on long distance service. It created the Universal Service Fund and the E-rate program for schools and libraries, but it also created some confusion by creating distinctions between “telecommunications service” and “information service.”

Federal Communications Commission: The FCC was created by the Communications Act of 1934 and today regulates “interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.”

National Telecommunications and Information Administration: An agency of the federal Department of Commerce, the NTIA serves as advisor to the President on the impact of telecommunications policies on the nation’s economic and technological advancement and on the telecommunications industry itself.

Rural Utility Service: A division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Utility Service grew out of the Depression-era Rural Electrification Administration. Its mission is to help provide public utilities—water and sewer, electrification, and telecommunications—to rural areas through public-private partnerships providing loans and grants. RUS is one of three agencies that make up USDA Rural Development (including Rural Business-Cooperative Service and Rural Housing Service).