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Down to the Wire

The information superhighway looks a whole lot better at 1.5 Mbps

Down to the Wire
Illustration by J.W. Taylor
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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.
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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Getting the Big Picture

 

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 webservices.cnet.com 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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More High-Speed Connections

 

More High-Speed Connections

The main reason most people haven't switched to DSL is that many companies don't offer it yet. And even if they do, a home has to be within 3.3 miles (18,000 feet) of a DSL facility to get service. A call to your local phone company or a look on its Web site can tell you if your home falls within the required radius. Unfortunately, the explosive demand for DSL has left phone companies in some areas struggling to find the technicians and equipment they need to keep up. Long waits (3 weeks or more) for the service to start and overloaded tech-help lines have left some customers frustrated and angry. There's one more hurdle to clear: Even after activation, out-of-date phone wires can interrupt connections and drastically reduce speeds. Then you'll have another wait for a new line to be installed. Schoolar is optimistic that these growing pains will pass as companies rush to expand their infrastructure.
 

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