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

by Jason Schumaker

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.

The G.lite Standard

It has been more than a year since the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) voted in favor of making G.lite ADSL (or ADSL Lite) standard (www.pcworld.com/pcwtoday/article/0,1510,8546,00.html). This PC World article states, “The G.Lite modem standard, called G.992.2, uses a stripped-down version of asymmetric digital subscriber line.” The connection is a bit slower than full-rate ADSL, but, according to ADSL Forum (http://adsl.com/), “the full-rate standard is more costly and problematic. Installation requires the phone company to come out and install a splitter on your phone line.” With the G.lite modem, this feature is installed into the modem, leaving only the installation of the modem to the customer. This keeps costs down for both customers and telcos, which is why many in the industry expect the G.lite modem to prosper.

And Then There was Cable

Cable is currently more popular and more readily available than DSL service. Currently, cable modem services are capable of reaching nearly 52 percent of U.S. households, compared to just 23 percent for telephone companies (John Borland, CNET News.com, 1/13/00). This trend is expected to continue for a few years, but by 2003, twice as many DSL installations as cable are forecast. The cited reason is phone lines are more available, especially in business districts (“Cable vs. DSL”, Seattle Times, May 2, 1999). There are those who would disagree, believing cable's current market position will only increase. AOL's recent acquisition of Time Warner could be evidence enough to support such claims. With access to Time Warner's cable lines, many believe AOL will place a higher priority on cable than DSL. Regardless, phone lines reach further into rural areas, and currently provide a more consistent service in higher-populated areas.

Cable service is supposed to be faster than DSL (by up to 10MBps), but since users are clumped together in hubs, speed can be greatly affected as the number of users rises. The cost of cable is slightly lower, as are installation fees. Prices for TCI's @Home cable Internet service is currently $39.95 per month, with a $150 installation fee. However, you do not have the option of choosing an ISP—that is part of the package, and not surprisingly has led to a few lawsuits. The basics are that smaller ISPs want access to cable lines, and the larger companies don't want to give it. As it stands now, AT&T has one ISP it uses—Excite@Home. Another ISP wanting to use AT&T lines would be charged for using those lines, which would mean the customer cost would go up accordingly.

I should note that I could find no indication that the TCI cable service supports Linux, while all those involved in my potential DSL plan do. And the TCI@Home web site says it “is for residential, casual use only and does not support servers.”

Jockeying for Position

Bringing costs down will have to become a major priority for both cable companies and the telcos. In an interesting move, on December 6 AT&T decided to offer the lines to competitors, although terms are not yet clear. What is clear is that many are fighting for entry into what promises to be a lucrative industry. A few ISP's are attempting to offer free DSL service by as early as March 15. Broadband Digital Group (a southern California company), iNYC (New York) and Staruni (Beverly Hills) are currently working to do just that (John Borland, CNET News.com, 1/13/00). The ISPs will collect demographic information by requiring users to click on a certain number of banner ads daily. They will then, no doubt, turn around and sell their findings to advertisers, who will complete the circle with more banner ads. Analysts are skeptical of this plan, since the cost of providing high-speed Internet access will still be high.

The FCC to the Rescue?

Covad extends DSL coverage but has to buy lines from US West, resulting in an extra $20 to $30 charge per month. Basically, I am forced to split my phone line into two lines (which is exactly what I had hoped to avoid) and am being charged accordingly. This situation may soon change. An article in ZDNet, “FCC Mandates Line Sharing” from November 18th, 1999, states, “The Federal Communications Commission today ruled that regional telephone companies must share local-loop lines with Digital Subscriber Line competitors.” Of course, the telcos are less than happy about this, as they are reluctant to undercut their current T1 services. Regardless, it seems the result will be cheaper DSL subscriptions, which should ensure the propagation of DSL technology. The mandate will be challenged, and people like me will just have to deal with inflated prices until the legal wrestling is finished.

Do I Need High-Speed Internet Access?

I have decided I am not ready to be a part of this tangled web just yet, as I don't want to pay the extra fees. While I do not possess the patience of Job, I can manage with a 56K modem for now, at least until the big corporations hammer out accords and mergers, etc. I will stress that I want DSL service. Once you have tried it, you will want it, too. Why run when you can drive? Why cook with an oven when there's a microwave? The speed achieved by using DSL or cable modem makes browsing the Internet fun again.

Whether or not you make the plunge depends on what you wish to accomplish and how much patience you have. If you run a business, be it from home or not, a super-fast Internet connection makes sense. Overall, the service is more of a want than a need, but that will change. We are a society hungry for speed and technology. Dial-up modems have served a purpose and will now give way to innovation. Within the next five years, you will most likely be receiving Internet access, phone service, long-distance service and cable from one company. In December 1999, Bell Atlantic was cleared by the FCC to offer long-distance telephone service. This is the first time, since the breakup of AT&T, that this has been allowed. What it means for Bell Atlantic is the ability to extend coverage. If other telcos are given the same clearance and DSL technology becomes widespread, thoroughly understood, and fully supported, prices will drop and the traditional dial-up modems will become door stops.

Jason Schumaker is an Assistant Editor at Linux Journal. He can be reached at jason@ssc.com.
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