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Understanding the FCC National Broadband Plan

By Shelly Palmer (bio), Host of WNBC's Digital Life with Shelly Palmer

As you know, Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a formal recommendation about how to make America a 21st century information powerhouse. In the latest survey, we were ranked 18th in broadband speed, just behind the Czech Republic. It's a real problem and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is on a publicity tour talking up the Commission's solution, it's called the 100 Squared initiative.

There are a bunch of documents floating around this week. The National Purposes Update and several blog posts and media releases about how the National Broadband Plan is shaping up.

Now, not everyone is happy with the FCC's vision for the future. How do you feel about it? It might help if you had some basic definitions to work with, so let's review some of the Technobabble.

First, what is "broadband?" The technical definition is "responding to or operating at a wide band of frequencies." But this is not the common usage. In practice, people use the term broadband to describe a robust Internet connection, a fast wireless connection or any connection to the Internet that's faster than an old-fashioned dial-up.

In the context of the National Broadband Plan, you should think of it as a very fast, high capacity way to access the Internet. Again, this is not the technical definition, but it is the most common usage for the term. That being said, the Devil is in the details. When you really need to understand the issue, you are going to want to spend the time to learn about all of the different kinds of connectivity.

Now, how fast is fast? Connection speeds vary widely, and, in fact, they vary widely from the quoted specifications based upon our next term: "contention." Your ISP (that's Internet Service Provider) may sell you six megabits down and three megabits up, but if you try to browse the Internet at 9pm at night, you might find your actual speeds are far slower. That's due to contention. How many people are contending for the same bandwidth?

Finally, you need to know that all connections are not symmetrical. It is very rare for ISP's to offer a consumer connection where the download speed and the upload speed are the same. Symmetrical connections are available, but they are usually business products. At home, you are likely to be offered an asymmetrical service like the six megabits down and three megabits up I just mentioned.

Why do you care about upload capacity? It's simple, if you want to back up your movies, music or other files to a remote location or cloud server, the slower your upload connection, the more time it will take you.

Of course, now you want to know what the difference is between megabits and megabytes. Here's the short story about bits and bytes. A bit (or binary digit, which is where the word comes from) is the smallest unit of information that can be stored or manipulated on a computer; it consists of either a one or a zero. A bit is not just the smallest unit of information a computer can handle, it's also the largest. So, to make their lives easier, programmers commonly bunch bits into eight-bit, bytes.

The math is very simple: 1 byte equals 8 bits. Now, when you want to describe a million of something, you add the prefix "mega" to it. So a million bits is a megabit. Megabits are abbreviated Mbps (notice the small "b"); Megabytes are abbreviated MBps or simply MB (notice the big "b"), therefore: 1 MBps (megabyte) = 8 Mbps (megabits).

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Of course, nothing in the computer business is ever that simple — networking hardware (like network cards or routers) is typically rated in Mbps (megabits). Confusingly, many computer peripherals (like hard disks and memory) are rated in MBps (megabytes).

No problem, now you know how to do the math. To transfer a file from your computer to a remote hard disk at 100 MBps (megabytes), you would need a network connection that could handle 800 Mbps (megabits).

So let's review.

  • Broadband is simply a synonym for a fast connection to the Internet.
  • Contention is the congestion caused by too many simultaneous users.
  • Symmetrical connections have the same upload and download speeds
  • Asymmetrical connections (which is what most people have at home) have fast download speeds but slower upload speeds.

Now you're ready to read and understand the Technobabble in the FCC's 100 Squared Plan, which recommends that America strive for 100 Megabit connectivity in 100 million households. Here's an important tip: when in doubt … faster is better!

About the Author: Shelly Palmer is the host of "Digital Life with Shelly Palmer," a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world which can be seen on WNBC-TV's NY Nonstop Tuesdays at 10p Eastern and online, and the host of "MediaBytes," a daily news show that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and the President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Mr. Palmer is the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV (2008, York House Press) and the upcoming, Get Digital: Reinventing Yourself and Your Career for the 21st Century Economy (2009, Lake House Press). You can join the MediaBytes mailing list here. Shelly can be reached at For information visit

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