Down to the Wire
Illustration by J.W. Taylor
In the early days of surfing the Net from home, many of us were so wowed by the technology that we didn't care how many times the dial-up connection failed or how slowly Web pages loaded. We'd wait as long as it took, simply because the end result was so cool. Not any more! As we have come to depend on the Net for e-mail, news, shopping, and stock quotes, pokey modems have become major impediments. Now bandwidth — data-transmission capacity — is everything. The bigger it gets, the faster and more convenient it is to send and receive information. But before you rush to toss out that old modem, consider your options. All the new high-speed technologies for online cruising come with caveats, and if you don't shop knowledgeably you may find yourself still disappointed but paying a lot more.

The technology most people use to access the Internet is the 56K computer modem. While theoretically capable of transmitting data at 56,000 bits per second (Kbps) over standard copper phone lines, its actual top speed is limited by the F.C.C. to 53 Kbps so it won't interfere with voice communications. In practice, however, moisture, antiquated phone wiring, and poor modem quality can reduce connections to a snail's pace. "Most people at home are getting 28 to 45 Kbps," says Joel Hartman, vice president for information technologies and resources at the University of Central Florida. Even 14 Kbps is not unheard of. The costs are relatively modest — a regular access fee to the ISP (Internet service provider) and per-minute or local-call charges by the phone company. If you want to surf the Net and use the phone or fax at the same time, however, you have to pay $200 or so for another phone line. In short, unless you're content to just send and receive e-mail, the slowness and unreliability of a computer modem make it the option to avoid.

The next step up is ISDN (integrated services digital network). It can transmit data at up to 128 Kbps — about twice the speed of a 56K modem — using wiring engineered for digital transmission. The most common type of residential ISDN, basic rate interface, or BRI, includes two ("bearer-service") B-channels, each of which can simultaneously transmit 64 Kbps of video, fax, phone, and computer data. Most people pay to have both channels dedicated just to the computer, which yields a 128 Kbps connection. This modest increase in bandwidth comes at a relatively high cost: a line-installation fee of approximately $125, a new ISDN modem for $125 to $250, and an ongoing line charge ranging from $30 to $100 per month. You also have to pay $60 to $100 for an Internet service provider that supports ISDN access — and not all of them do. Daryl Schoolar, an industry analyst at Cahners In-Stat, a technology consulting firm in Scottsdale, Arizona, believes that ISDN doesn't have much of a future. "With the superior alternatives out there, there's no reason to get it."

For homeowners, those superior alternatives include cable modem, DSL, and satellite. All three promise speeds many times higher than a 56K modem, and they don't tie up your phone line. But all are subject to limitations that a careful consumer should factor in before signing up.

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