Cruising The Net In Hyperdrive
Tim Higgins has the bandwidth blues. When he lived in Boston, the 48-year-old computer networking consultant connected to the Internet via a cable modem. But since moving to Nellysford, Va., last September, he's had to hook up via a markedly slower phone hookup--the only way to go online in his neck of the woods. "Once you get a taste of broadband," says Higgins, "it's really hard to go back."
Serious surfers know the broader the bandwidth, the better. Although high-speed Net access is currently limited largely to urban areas, an estimated 31% of the country's online households already have cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), or wireless services. But cable and telecom providers companies are scrambling to widen their markets, so many more consumers will soon be able to enjoy the benefits of a high-speed home where the Net is always on and available. Using a DSL hookup, for example, we downloaded IBM's annual report in three seconds, vs. nearly a minute via analog phone modem. But the array of broadband choices is confusing, to say the least, and each technology has drawbacks along with benefits. Whatever service you choose, be prepared for aggravation, including feckless installation crews, technical glitches, and clueless operators manning help lines. "All these companies are rushing to make high-speed access available without adequately ramping up support," says Eric McIntyre, who, as manager of Web site Cablemodeminfo.com, is a conduit for gripes from disgruntled cable, DSL, and satellite users. For many consumers, however, the hassles are worth it. Before you make your choice of service, here's what you need to know.
SHARED PLATFORM. With more than 1 million subscribers, cable has an early lead in providing high-speed Internet access. Cable delivers the Web at speeds up to 18 times faster than through a standard 56k dial-up connection--about the same speed as the T1 line found at many corporations. Cable service costs anywhere from $30 to $60 per month for unlimited access, and while you don't have to be a cable-TV subscriber to receive Net service, you may be able to get a discount if you are. You can also knock about $10 off your monthly charge if you buy your cable modem from Circuit City or another major electronics retailer, rather than renting one from the cable company.
But all is not sweetness and speed. Cable is a "shared platform," which means you and your neighbors are sending and receiving data on the same pathway. During peak hours--5 p.m. to 11 p.m. in residential areas--traffic jams can sometimes slow your service to dial-up speeds.
"Night is noticeably slower," recalls Higgins. Also be aware of security concerns. On cable, you're on a network you share with others, much as you might have at work. That makes you susceptible to hackers. One way to limit possible damage is to make sure you turn off any of your computer's file-sharing features. You might also investigate installing a firewall program to protect your computer. "If you don't, you're leaving yourself wide open," says Jerry Jones, Web-site manager for Disney Resort Parks Sales & Service in Orlando. He installed Winproxy ($59.95) after getting cable service.
SPEEDY ACCESS. Cable companies also force you to use their own Internet service providers, with less compelling content than, say, America Online. For example, Comcast sticks you with Excite@Home. On Time Warner's system, Roadrunner is your only option--although Time Warner's planned merger with AOL could change that. AT&T recently announced it would give subscribers to its TCI cable service a choice of providers after its exclusive contract with Excite@Home expires in 2002. And you can always subscribe to AOL.
Even though cable is the current leader in high-speed residential access, DSL is gaining as the regional Bell companies and a number of independent providers race to make the service available to everyone in their calling areas. DSL uses your home's existing telephone wiring but different switching and signaling equipment to speed data down the line. It also allows you to be online while you're talking on the phone. The most common and cost-effective type of DSL service is called asynchronous DSL, or ADSL. In asynchronous service, data travel at different rates to and fro. Download speeds average six times faster than dial-up modems, and upload is about three times as fast. Like a cable connection, DSL is always on. The service costs $30 to $50 a month--higher fees get you more bandwidth and faster speeds. Installation runs $100 to $200, plus another $100 to $300 for a modem supplied by the phone company.
While DSL is slower than cable's top rate, it's consistent. Since it's a dedicated line, you don't have to worry about heavy traffic slowing you down, and as you're not sharing a network with your neighbors, you're less likely to get hacked. You have a broader selection of ISPs than with cable, but the number is limited to those that have a contract with your local phone company. You can also subscribe to DSL via alternative providers including Covad Communications or NorthPoint Communications. One company, Broadband Digital Group of Newport Beach, Calif., even plans to provide free DSL service, although you'll have to put up with ads on your screen. Alternative providers offer a wider variety of ISPs, but you'll have to add an extra phone line. That will probably change, thanks to a recent Federal Communications Commission ruling that will force local phone companies to open customers' voice lines to other DSL carriers. The opening could come within six months, although appeals could cause a delay.
LOOK TO THE STARS. Like cable, DSL is now only available in major metropolitan areas. Access in those areas is further limited to people who live within 17,500 feet of a phone company central switching office because the digital signal--as well as access speed and reliability--degrades with distance. Mike Dimitroff, a digital telephony developer for Lucent Technologies, is lucky enough to live just two blocks from his local phone company's central office in Plano, Tex. Unlike subscribers who live farther away, he says, "my DSL connection is faster, and I haven't had any technical problems." That good fortune will soon be shared by others, though. Local phone companies are building thousands of remote switching facilities to enhance service throughout their regions.
For an alternative to cables or phone lines, look to the stars--or at least to the nearest radio tower. You'll need a satellite dish about the size of a hubcap affixed to your roof. The cost of the equipment, which you can get from providers such as InfoDish (www.infodish.com) or PC Connection (pcconnection.com), is about $190. Installation is $100 to $250, with monthly fees, including ISP charges, ranging from $30 to $130, depending on how much time you spend online. Satellite data streams are about seven times as fast as those over a dial-up modem. But that's just for incoming data. You're back to 56 kilobits per second when sending data because you have to use a phone line for your uplink. That is why Jones switched from satellite as soon as cable became available in his area. "Satellite is better than dial-up alone, but definitely not the way to go if you've got a choice," he says. Market leader Hughes Electronics says its DirectPC system will be able to send as well as receive data in two years. However, a handful of startups, like Tachyon in San Diego, plan to provide two-way satellite service to businesses as soon as this year.
A different wireless Web technology relies on radio waves transmitted to and from the towers that handle cellular phone calls. Teligent and Winstar Communications provide local multipoint distribution service (LMDS) that uses frequencies in the 24 to 38 gigahertz range to send data at speeds as high as 155 megabits per second. But your antenna must be within the line of sight of your provider's base station. This makes LMDS best for urban areas, where antennas can be placed atop tall buildings. Used primarily by businesses, these systems cost anywhere from $149 to $1,400 a month, depending on speed.
More affordable for residential users are wireless applications that transmit data at a much lower frequency--1.9 gigahertz. They're about half as fast (512 kbps) as average LMDS, but they don't require an unobstructed view of a cellular base station. You mount the antenna on the outside wall of your house. AT&T is currently test-marketing such a service in three major metropolitan areas and plans to offer it nationwide early next year, starting at $34.95 per month. However, it will only be available in areas not served by AT&T's TCI cable operations.
Whether you want to tether yourself to the Net by cable or phone lines, or rely on radio waves to get you online, you're not likely to regret jumping on the broadband bandwagon.