The Web: Cable Modems Really Rock

Until recently, Joshua Jablons was a Web surfer wannabe, continually frustrated by the glacial pace at which Web pages crawled onto his home computer screen. But thanks to the zippy cable modem the Montclair (N.J.) executive installed last fall, waiting is a not-so-fond memory. "Downloads that used to take an hour now happen in a minute," he says. "This thing flies!"

Jablons is one of a small but growing list of converts to cable-modem service, which offers so-called broadband access to the Net over home cable-TV lines. Moving data over cable wires vs. conventional phone lines is like pumping water through a five-inch pipe vs. a straw. There are only about 100,000 U.S. cable-modem users. But big cable operators, such as Comcast, Cablevision, Cox, U S West, and Tele-Communications, are rolling out high-speed Net service nationwide. So you may soon have to decide if you have a need for speed.

How fast are we talking about? Cable modems download at up to 1.5 million to 3 million bits per second, or 50 to 100 times that of the 28.8 modems still found on millions of PCs. That means a 10-megabyte software download that would take 46 minutes with a 28.8 modem would need just 52 seconds with a cable modem. Due to cable architecture, uploads top out at 50,000 to 200,000 BPS, says Comcast Senior Vice-President Roger Keating.

Cable modems are also 8 to 15 times faster than the high-speed ISDN lines many local phone companies sell--plus, cable service is often cheaper and easier to install. A new phone technology called digital subscriber line (DSL) may someday give Net-via-cable competition. But for now, cable wins the home-access speed derby. "I guarantee it's as fast as our T1 line at the office," says Bruce Michaels, a Philadelphia-area systems manager who often oversees his company's network from home via his cable connection.

Cable Internet service runs $29 to $49 per month, usually including a $10 rental fee for the modem. Some operators will sell the modem for about $400. But with technology changing and a new standard expected next year, it's smarter to lease. And you don't have to be a cable-TV subscriber to get cable Internet access, but you often get a $5 to $10 break on modem service if you take both.

You usually pay a one-time $100 to $150 installation fee, which covers a technician extending the cable line to your computer, installing an Ethernet network card inside your PC, and loading a Web browser and special software. But keep an eye out for local discount promotions.

The cost looks more reasonable when you consider that many Web addicts pay a local Internet service provider $19.95 a month for dial-up access, often connecting through a second phone line at an added price of $10 to $20 or more a month. The two services become redundant with a cable modem and can be dropped. America Online also gives a $10 discount off its $19.95 monthly charge to members who connect only via cable modem. "I'm actually saving money--for a service that's dramatically better," says Detroit-area software developer Brad Wardell, who dumped his ISP and extra phone line when he got a cable modem last summer.

GOODIES. For your money, you get a Net connection that is always on, with no dial-up or busy signals. You also can access online services such as AOL or CompuServe at superfast speeds. Many cable operators, including Comcast and Cox, have joined with startup @home Network to provide tech support, a nifty customized home page, and selected Web news-and-entertainment fare. And most cable-modem providers offer E-mail and server space to post your own Web pages.

Some users find that access speeds slow during times when Net use is highest. And remember, if you activate the file-sharing feature of Windows 95, a sophisticated hacker could penetrate your files on the hard drive across the cable network. Normally, that feature is deactivated when service is installed.

A cable modem makes little sense if you do most of your computer work on the road. Also, if you use the Net mainly to send and receive E-mail, cheaper dial-up services such as AOL will suffice. But if you do decide to become an Internet speed demon, watch out. "After I got the cable modem, my wife complained that I was staying up until 2 a.m. looking at Web sites," Jablons says. Now, that's a speedy trip to some sleepless nights.

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