The (not so) Wonderful World of High-Speed Internet Access

Discover the joys of using the new technology of DSL and cable modems to make your link to the world.

The idea seemed simple enough: I wanted to get a high-speed Internet connection at home, preferably using DSL (digital subscriber line). Thinking a quick phone call and a few hundred bucks in connection/installation fees would do the trick, I found instead that the business is still in its infancy and mired in a not-so-nice competition between telephone companies (telcos), DSL providers, cable providers and ISPs. There is a lot of money to be made and monopoly theories already abound. These have brought in the FCC, special-interest groups and others. It really is a mess. This is cutting-edge technology that may soon connect a majority of computer users to the Internet, and yet again, big businesses are too concerned with private interests. Legal wrangling will continue to delay the expansion of service and lead to much frustration for those waiting.

What are the Options?

When I began to research alternatives for high-speed access, I felt DSL service was the best solution. We use it here at Linux Journal and the speed of the connection is wonderful. For no particular reason, I had a negative opinion toward a similar service offered through cable companies. I was surprised by what I found. As it turns out, cable has advanced quite a bit more than DSL service—there are over two million subscribers to cable, and only some 500,000 to DSL services nationwide (www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/ctg704.htm). Both DSL service and cable are viable options.

What is DSL?

DSL is technology that uses ordinary copper phone wires to transmit high-bandwidth information to homes and small businesses. Your phone company receives information in analog and digital form. Digital information is converted to analog (voice) information and sent to your computer. Your modem converts the analog information back to digital. With DSL technology, the phone company can send digital information directly to your computer as digital data (you need a DSL modem, actually, a router), which allows for a more efficient use of bandwidth. Most importantly, the signals are separated, allowing you to talk on the phone and surf the Web at the same time.

Speed

The main advantages of DSL are speed and always-on Internet access. Having used DSL service here at work, I no longer have the patience for “old” dial-up modems. On Whatis.com, I found the statement “Using DSL, up to 6.1 megabits per second of data can be sent downstream and up to 640Kbps upstream.” This will dramatically improve the speed of your Internet connection—as much as 25 times faster than a 56k modem, according to US West—and without all the horrible squeaks and scratches of a modem. With a DSL line, you can quietly and quickly zip through the Internet, download images or just surf at your leisure.

The service I could afford would provide a 384Kbps downstream connection and a 128Kbps upstream connection. This is called ADSL (asymmetric), since different speeds are used for the downstream connection (the data sent to the user) and the upstream connection (the user requests). Requesting data uses little bandwidth, but the transmission of video, audio and 3-D images requires more. Splitting bandwidth in this manner allows for a small portion of the downstream connection to be used for phone conversations. Imagine being able to talk on the phone to a friend while checking out the same web site, or sending a fax without having to disconnect from the Net!

Requirements and Cost

On average, DSL service runs between $30 and $60 per month. The initial installation and activation fees can be $300 or more, but special offers abound. The service I chose will cost $60 per month and has an eight-week waiting period before installation. As far as hardware is concerned, I need a router and an Ethernet card. You can spend close to $250 on a router and another $50 for the Ethernet card. If you are technically inclined, handling the installation of the router and Ethernet card yourself can save you as much as $200. The router or “DSL modem” runs about $250, but again, rebates and special offers seem common. My initial fees after all the rebates, etc. would be around $250, which seems reasonable.

Frustration comes from having to pay $60 per month. Our Editor in Chief, Marjorie Richardson, lives a mere 20 blocks from me, but falls within US West coverage. She pays $30 per month, and US West supplied the router and Ethernet card (initial fee $140). I pay more because I am not within US West coverage, and therefore subscribe through the competition. I would go through Covad Communications, who leases the lines from US West. Then Covad recommends an ISP (oz.net), and I get a headache—three companies to deal with! This is very common and leads to customer service problems. If I have a problem with my service, I would first call my ISP who might say the problem is with the DSL provider (in my case, Covad), who might then point a finger at US West in an endless round of blame-placing, rather than trying to find a solution.

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