This glossary was developed in partnership with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance



5G, or fifth generation, is the next iteration of cell phone networks. 5G service will be faster and have lower latency than 4G LTE, and will require densely deployed “small cells” rather than the macro cell towers commonly used for 4G. Because many 5G small cells must be deployed closely together in order to create the network, the technology is best suited to densely populated cities. Industry-wide 5G technology standards are still being finalized, and it is not clear when 5G service will be commercially available.

anchor institutions

Flagship community institutions, including but not limited to: schools, health care centers, and libraries. Anchor institutions are sometimes connected to fiber even when fiber service is not commercially available in the community. Because of this, they can act as a connection to the internet backbone.


Internet connections have two components – a downstream and upstream. When the two speeds are not comparable, the connection is termed asymmetric. Typically, phone and cable companies offer much slower upload speeds than download, in part because the Internet tended to be a download-centric system in the 90’s and early 00’s. However, users increasingly need faster upstream connections to take full advantage of modern applications.


A general term for the segment of a network between the core and the edge. An example: the connection from a community network hub in a small town to a carrier hotel where it connects to the Internet backbone.


The rate at which the network can transmit information across it. Generally, higher bandwidth is desirable. The amount of bandwidth available to you can determine whether you download a photo in 2 seconds or 2 minutes.


The base unit of information in computing. For our purposes, also the base unit of measuring network speeds. 1 bit is a single piece of information. Network speeds tend to be measured by bits per second – using kilo (1,000), mega (1,000,000), and giga (1,000,000,000). A bit is a part of byte, they are not synonyms. Bit is generally abbreviated with a lower case b.


A speed benchmark set and updated by the Federal Communications Commission. The benchmark was last updated in 2015 to define broadband as 25 mbps download speeds and 3 mbps upload speeds. “Broadband” is generally shorthand for quality internet service.


Broadband Technology Opportunities Program – established by the 2009 stimulus legislation, a program to disburse $4.7 billion to improve broadband access and literacy throughout the country.


The base unit for file storage. Comprised of 8 bits (just to confuse you – if you don’t like powers of 2, stay away from computer science). A 1MB (megabyte) file is made of 8 million bits. Bytes generally refer to the size of storage whereas bits are used frequently when discussing how rapidly files may be moved. Byte is generally abbreviated with a capital B.

cable modem system

Cable television companies have offered Internet access via their cable system for more than a decade. The network architecture uses a loop that connects each subscriber in a given neighborhood, meaning they all share one big connection to the Internet. Over time, needs have increased faster than capacity on these networks. Because the cable network shares the last mile connection among hundreds of subscribers, a few bandwidth hogs can slow everyone’s experience.


Some refer to the entire Internet as a cloud – the idea being that all the information is just out there and it does not matter where. More commonly now, cloud computing refers to services such as Amazon’s S3 where users pay a fee to store information on Amazon’s servers without ever really knowing the physical location. As we gain access to faster Internet connections (particularly on the upstream) cloud services may offer cheaper means of accomplishing tasks and more reliable back ups.


A reinforced tube through which cabling runs. Conduit is useful both to protect fiber-optic cables in the ground and because one can place the conduit underground when convenient and later “blow” or “pull” the fiber cabling through the conduit.

cooperative (co-op)

A non-profit, member-owned organization that provides a needed service. Members pay a small fee to join and have voting rights within the organization.


Customer Premises Equipment – typically describes the box on the side of a house that receives and sends the signal from the network, connecting the subscriber.

dark fiber

Unused fiber infrastructure that has not been “lit” with internet service. When someone is building a fiber network, the cost of adding more fiber than immediately required is negligible and the cost of having to add more fiber later is very high. Therefore, many include dark fiber in projects – fibers that can be leased to others or held in reserve for a future need.

data center

A large group of networked computer servers typically used by organizations for the remote storage, processing, or distribution of large amounts of data.

digital equity

The state of all members of a community having equal access and sufficient digital literacy to use communications technologies.

digital inclusion

The actions required in order to achieve digital equity.


This is a technical specification that allows modern cable networks to offer two-way data transmissions. Every few years, the standards are improved to offer higher speeds. DOCSIS has historically offered much slower upstream and downstream but that is expected to change for very high speeds in both directions in the years after 2020.


Internet connections have two components – a downstream and upstream. Downstream refers to the rate at which the user’s computer can receive data from the Internet.

Synonyms: download


Digital Subscriber Line – or Internet access offered over the phone lines. DSL allows users to use the Internet at speeds greater than dial-up while also using the phone line for telephone conversations. DSL uses frequencies not used by human voices. Unfortunately, these frequencies degrade quickly over distance, meaning customers must live within a mile or even much closer to the central office to get the fastest speeds. In any event, upstream speeds over DSL tend to top out at 5 Mbps.


A situation in which two companies own all or nearly all of the market for a given type of product or service.


A system that uses glass (or plastic) to carry light which is used to transmit information. Typically, each side of the fiber is attached to a laser that send the light signals. When the connection reaches capacity, the lasers may be upgraded to send much more information along the same strand of fiber. This technology has been used for decades and will remain the dominant method of transmitting information for the foreseeable future.


Verizon was the first  large carrier to build a FTTH network. This network is called FiOS.

fixed wireless

A connectivity model that uses stationary wireless technology to bridge the “last mile” between the internet backbone and the subscriber.


A cable company wishing to provide television services in a community historically signed a franchise agreement with the municipal government. The agreement would specify what the community would receive from the cable company in return for access to rights of way (such as telephone poles). However, this arrangement has changed in many states, where states have preempted local control. Cities have not been permitted to offer exclusive franchises since 1992.


Fiber-to-the-home. As most telecommunications networks use fiber in some part of it, FTTH is used to specify those that use fiber to connect the subscriber. Some claim they have a fiber-optic network because they use fiber to the node even when they use phone lines or a cable network over the last mile. FTTH may be more expensive to install, but offers significant savings in terms of maintenance when compared to copper alternatives.


Fiber-to-the-Premise or Fiber-to-the-User are used somewhat interchangeably with FTTH to describe full fiber networks.


Gigabits per second – or one billion bits per second. 8 Gbps means that 8 billion bits are transferred each second. 1 Kbps (Kilobits)<1 Mbps (Megabits)<1 Gbps


Shorthand for 1 gbps (1,000 mbps) download speeds. More colloquially, a speed fast enough that any number of applications can use the network without creating congestion.


A plot of land that will soon become a residential development. Building a broadband network is cheap in greenfields because roads, sidewalks, lawns, and buildings are not yet impediments to running the necessary wires.


Hybrid Fiber-Coax – a network that combines some fiber-optic elements (typically from the head end to a node in the field) and coaxial cable (typically the loop that connects the node to subscribers).


Short for Institutional Network. This is the network a municipal government requires to carry out its duties. I-Net frequently refers specifically to a network built for city uses (connecting schools, for instance) by the cable company as part of the franchise agreement with the city. Cities are increasingly seeing the value of owning their own network.

Synonyms: Institutional Network

Internet of things/IoT

Reference to internet-connected devices — anything from laptops and smartphones to “smart” streetlights or thermostats.


Kilobits per second – a measure of speed. 8 Kbps means that 8 thousand bits are transferred each second. Using an 8 Kbps connection, it would take 1 second to transfer a 1 KB (Kilobyte) file – a text file, for instance. 1 Kbps<1 Mbps (Megabits)<1 Gbps (Gigabits)

last mile

Describes the final leg of a connection between a service provider and the customer. In DSL and cable systems, this is the most frequent bottleneck and the most expensive to resolve. The service provider may run a faster fiber-optic network into the neighborhood but deliver the last mile (which could be considerably less than a mile -“last” is the operative term) with a phone lines that cannot sustain fast speeds.

Synonyms: first mile


The amount of time it takes for a bit to move from point A to point B. In the words of Dr. Stuart Cheshire: “If you want to transfer a large file over your modem it might take several seconds, or even minutes. The less data you send, the less time it takes, but there’s a limit. No matter how small the amount of data, for any particular network device there’s always a minimum time that you can never beat. That’s called the latency of the device.”

lit fiber

Fiber infrastructure that is being used to provide internet service.


A cell used to provide cell network coverage to a large area (compared to small cells, which cover a smaller area). Often mounted on towers.


Megabits per second – a measure of speed. 8 Mbps means that 8 million bits are transferred each second. Using an 8 Mbps connection, it would take 1 second to transfer an 1 MB (Megabyte) file – a photo, for instance. Don’t get lost in the details – when it comes to Mbps, more is faster. 1 Kbps (Kilobits)<1 Mbps<1 Gbps (Gigabits)


Multiple dwelling unit – most frequently apartment buildings. MDUs can offer a challenge when building a FTTH network due to the need to negotiate with building owners and rewiring that may be necessary to bring fast speeds to each unit.

middle mile

Middle mile is a term most often referring to the network connection between the last mile and greater Internet. For instance, in a rural area, the middle mile would likely connect the town’s network to a larger metropolitan area where it interconnects with major carriers.

municipal network

A broadband network owned by a local government. These networks take many forms, from modest networks serving a few businesses to networks that are available at every address across a community. Some are run by the municipality and others are managed by an ISP under contract.


National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers. NATOA is comprised of local government officials and employees that work on cable and broadband issues – from public access television to managing the community’s rights-of-way.


National Telecommunications and Information Administration – a division of the Department of Commerce in Washington, DC.

open access

An arrangement in which the network is open to independent service providers to offer services. In many cases, the network owner only sells wholesale access to the service providers who offer all retail services (ie: triple play of internet, phone, tv). Open access provides much more competition from which potential subscribers can choose.


To create a network that goes into competition with an incumbent provider.


Residences or businesses that have access to the network. As a ftth network is constructed, it will generally be built through a neighborhood before individual houses or businesses are connected via a drop cable (which is also a fiber-optic cable). When a house or businesses is”passed,”it means they are eligible to sign up for services (which may still require a technician to hook up the drop cable).


This is a type of network that allows computers to connect directly to each other rather than organizing them via hierarchical connections. This term is most often used to describe a type of file sharing that has greatly increased bandwidth usage and allow faster downloading of the same file from multiple computers. These networks are more difficult to surveil because traffic does not reliably pass through bottlenecks.  Synonyms: p2p


PEG is an acronym for Public Access, Educational, and Government video programs. These are common programming options made available to the community by the cable company in return for access to the community’s rights of way.


A Point of Presence is an access point that provides a connection from one location to the rest of the Internet. ISPs have multiple PoPs within their networks.


A public-private partnership divides risks and responsibilities of an infrastructure project between public and private entities.


Rural Utilities Service – a branch of the US Department of Agriculture. RUS offers loans and grants to entities deploying broadband in rural areas in addition to supporting other utilities in rural regions.

small cell

Small cells provide wireless service via a connection to fiber optic networks. These units are much smaller and exist closer to the user — often attached to telephone poles and light posts — than macro cells (“cell towers”). Small cells already exist in many cities to provide 4G service.


smart city

Used generally to describe a community that uses IoT technologies and data to optimize quality of life.


Internet connections have two components – a downstream and upstream. When the two speeds are comparable, the connection is termed symmetric. Fiber-optic networks more readily offer symmetrical connections than DSL and cable, which are inherently asymmetrical. Ultimately, purely symmetrical connections are less important than connections which offer robust connections in both ways. However, modern asymmetrical connections via DSL and cable networks offer upload speeds that are too slow for a household to concurrently use modern applications.


A data circuit that transmits at 1.544 Mbps.

Synonyms: T-1, T.1

take rate

The number of subscribers to a service – typically expressed in a percentage of those taking the service divided by the total number of people who could take the service. If a community fiber network passes 10,000 people and 6,000 people subscribe, it has a take rate of 60%. When planning the network, it will be built to be profitable at or above a certain take rate as defined in the business plan. Generally, networks require a few years to achieve take rates due to the long time it takes to connect each customer.


Telephone company – a provider of telecommunications services such as voice (telephony) and data services. Also called common carriers or LECs (Local Exchange Carriers); ILECs are incumbent providers, like AT&T or Verizon.


Health care initiatives supported by a broadband connection. Telehealth applications are especially reliant on high-capacity, low-latency service. Goals include the ability to bring quality health care to those living far from hospitals or to elderly patients wishing to age in place.


This term refers to a variety of attempts to use modern technology to make it seem like a person in a remote location is in the room. The more bandwidth available, the more realistic the remote person will appear. Modern telepresence applications are impressive, using sophisticated algorithms with multiple video cameras and microphones to go far beyond video-telephone systems.


The three main services offered over these networks – television, phone services, and Internet access. Many people like to get all three from the same service provider on the same bill. Service providers frequently offer deals that will lower the cost on these packages. Typically, television breaks even or loses money whereas the service provider makes the most profits from phone and Internet access.


Internet connections have two components – a downstream and upstream. Upstream refers to the rate at which the user’s computer can send data to the Internet. DSL and cable networks frequently offer upload speeds at only 1/10 of the downstream speeds. This is one of the main reasons DSL and cable networks are insufficient for the modern Internet.

Synonyms: upload


Universal Service Fund – a federal program with four programs: high cost (subsidizes the high cost of services in rural areas), low income (includes Lifeline and Link Up discounts to those in poverty), rural health care (reduced rates to rural health care providers to ensure they have access to similar services as urban counterparts), and schools and libraries (E-Rate subsidizes telecommunication services to schools and libraries).


A private company that sells broadband equipment, builds infrastructure, or provides broadband service.


This is a suite of protocols that allow wireless devices to exchange information using unlicensed frequencies. Equipment carrying the Wi-Fi brand is interoperable.

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