The term broadband Internet access, often shortened to "broadband Internet" or just "broadband", generically refers to last-mile Internet connections exceeding the abilities of standard analog modems and of ISDN connections, i.e. connections with speeds above 128 kilobits per second (kbit/s).
In some countries broadband services operate at over 1 Mbit/s for connections to private residences, with higher data transfer rates possible for business purposes, but involving a correspondingly higher charge.
In the United Kingdom many domestic users have connections either via cable modems, or via ADSL, and these typically run at around 500 kbit/s. Commercial users can obtain higher data rates for a higher subscription. In a few of the many areas not served by cable or ADSL, community organisations have begun to install Wi-Fi networks.
In the USA many users have connections at about 380 kbit/s (as of 2002), though this situation may change as new equipment appears.
The typical broadband connection to date, whether cable or xDSL, is configured by the ISP to run at bit rates from 350-500 kbit/s. The full rate connection for a typical cable plant might be as high as 10 Mbps and with ADSL it might be 2 to 6 Mbps (limited by how long the subscriber loop is - shorter loop, higher speed).
In practice, even this bandwidth is not necessarily reliably available to the consumer, as ISP tend to overbook their backbone capacity. Since most user connections typically only operate at a small fraction of their full rated bandwidth, this aggregation strategy works more often than not, so users can typically burst to their full bandwidth most of the time. Peer-to-peer file sharing systems stress these assumptions, and can cause major problems for ISPs who have excessively overbooked their capacity. (See network traffic engineering for a fuller discussion).
As takeup for this introductory products increases, telcos are starting to offer higher bit rate services. For existing connections, this most of the time simply involves reconfiguring the existing equipment at each end of the connection.
Newer technologies for twisted pair phone lines such as VDSL and pushing fiber optic connections closer to the subscriber in both telephone and cable plants are opening up the possibility of higher performance for streaming data, such as audio and video streams. There are now many streaming audio services, and several streaming video services. Broadband Internet access also facilitates the use of file sharing software.
The data rates on most broadband services still do not suffice to provide good quality video, as MPEG-2 quality video requires about 6 Mbit/s for good results. Adequate video for some purposes becomes possible at lower data rates, with rates of 768 kbit/s and 384 kbit/s used for some video conferencing applications. The MPEG-4 format delivers high-quality video at 2 Mbit/s, at the high end of cable modem and ADSL performance. The Ogg Tarkin format is intended to deliver similar performance.
As the bandwidth delivered to end-users increases, the market expects that video on demand services streamed over the Internet will become more popular, though at the present time such services generally require specialised networks.
Increased bandwidth has already made an impact on newsgroups: postings to groups such as alt.binaries.* have grown from JPEG images to entire CD and DVD images. According to NTL, the level of traffic on their network increased from a daily inbound news feed of 150 Gigabytes of data per day and 1 Terabyte of data out each day in 2001 to 500 Gigabytes of data inbound and over 4 Terabytes out each day in 2002.