Getting the Big Picture
An Internet service provider may advertise jackrabbit throughput, but actual speed may be significantly slower. To check if your rate is more tortoise than hare, you can instantly test your bandwidth for free on several Web sites, including and www.computingcentral com. If the speed's not up to snuff, complain to your ISP.

High-Speed Connections

Cable modems work with the same fiber-optic/copper coaxial network that feeds cable TVs. They can download data at up to 1.5 million bits per second (Mbps), the same speed as the dedicated high-speed T-1 lines found in many offices. And as with a T-1 line, you don't spend time logging on or off; the modem is always connected. Also, because the cable modem functions on a separate wire, you can use the modem and watch television at the same time. Whether you have cable TV or not, a technician will need to run wire to your computer from the neighborhood cable circuit and install the modem, related software, and an ethernet port if your PC or Mac doesn't have one already. A complete installation runs about $100 on average, and the service costs around $40 per month (on top of your cable TV bill). Plus, there's a $10 or so monthly rental fee for the modem. (Or you can buy one for around $100.)

While cheaper and theoretically much faster than ISDN, cable modems can get you stuck in online traffic jams. That's because users are hooked up to what is essentially a party line; they actually share bandwidth with all the other subscribers in the neighborhood. The more people who tap into the Net at any given time, the slower the speed. In addition, Schoolar says, "there's usually only one or two cable companies per city, so you don't have much choice of an Internet service provider." And that can mean fewer options in rates and features.

DSL (digital subscriber line) is the phone companies' answer to high-speed cable. Like cable, this technology offers a continuous, no-log-on connection that can download data at up to 1.5 Mbps. But because DSL uses traditional copper phone wire, the provider doesn't need to come to your home; service is activated over your existing phone line. The beauty of DSL is that all the bandwidth is for your use only; there's no sharing to cause slowdowns.

The other advantage of DSL is that you can actually choose how much bandwidth you want. "If you don't need maximum speed, you can get slower service and pay a lower fee," Schoolar says. The fastest residential DSLs, which cost about $100 per month, download (retrieve data) at 1.5 Mbps and upload (send data) at a maximum of 128 Kbps. (DSL is asynchronous, which means you download at a different speed than you upload.) "Typically, home users don't need to worry about upload speed, which applies only when you're sending e-mail, posting pages to a personal Web site, or gaming online," says Schoolar. Most people pay $40 a month for downloads at a maximum of 640 Kbps and uploads at a top speed of 90 Kbps. Generally speaking, there are no additional fees. You can hire a company technician for approximately $200 to come install the software, modem, and ethernet port. The parts furnished to run DSL are easy to load into your computer. Some companies sell the modem for $100; others offer it free. A line splitter, which allows the use of a phone or fax when you're online, is usually provided at no cost.

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