Your neighbors have done it. Your friends have done it. Even your grandfather has done it -- they've killed their modems for a zippy, high-speed, always-on Internet connection. With his newfound bandwidth, Grandpa is suddenly a world-class netizen -- downloading MP3s, checking stock quotes in real time, bidding on Lionel trains on EBay Inc., and serving up his own Web site, all from his home iMac.
You, on the other hand, are enduring busy signals, dropped connections, missed phone calls, and slow-as-molasses Web response time. Life just isn't fair.
But it's getting fairer. The fastest analog modems, with peak download speeds of 56 Kbps (thousands of bits per second), can hardly be compared with the speeds of digital Internet connections, which have speeds ranging from 128 Kbps to 10 Mbps (that's M as in mega, or millions of bits per second). The fastest of the fast is as much as 200 times faster than an analog modem.
Today you'll find fast Internet links over DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), satellite, and TV cable widely available -- quite likely in your area. Each high-speed technology has pros and cons, however, and you probably won't find all services available where you live -- but new worlds of content and capability make these technologies worth looking into.
Understanding how cable, DSL, ISDN, and satellite services work will help you pick the technology that best suits your location, your needs, and your budget.
When it comes to high-speed Internet access, there are two important things you'll need to ask yourself: what options are available to me, and how much speed do I need?
As with other trappings of civilization, city dwellers have a wider range of options than country folk. (But even the remotest areas typically have access to at least one high-speed Internet technology.) Being an urbanite won't solve all your problems, however. Though you might live in a high-tech mecca, your exact location may limit the availability of some services, even if they are offered in your city.
Knowing which technologies are available leads to another issue: speed. Your bandwidth requirements will vary depending on what you want out of your Internet connection. If you're going to be running a small Web server on your G4 or plan to download tons of large files, having higher speeds is essential.
Unlike traditional T1 dedicated-Internet connections that are used by businesses (and that cost upward of US$1,000 per month), most home technologies don't carry any speed guarantees. Currently, high-speed services are "overcommitted" -- many more users are signed up to use a given Internet pipe than do so simultaneously. Providers commonly run at an overcommitment ratio of 100:1, expecting that only a fraction of users will be active at any one time. But during peak traffic periods, your performance can drop from normal speeds of 300 to 500 Kbps to poke along as slowly as with that old factory-installed modem.
Before choosing a technology, you should consider how you want to distribute Internet access in your home or small office. Most high-speed technologies currently deliver access to Macs via 10 Mbps Ethernet, so each wired computer needs an Ethernet port. If you plan to share access among several computers, you must set up an Ethernet or wireless network.
Providers often charge more for multiple computers (usually the fee is listed as an "IP address" charge), and some providers don't support Macs very well.
And if you're worried about security -- an important issue with always-on Internet connections -- you may want to invest in a firewall product to protect your computer from hackers. Now read on to get the lowdown on each technology -- and to discover the best one for you.
Cable: Fast but Shared
Currently the most popular means of fast Internet connection, a cable modem is also likely to be the least expensive. Using your coaxial television cable and a special modem, you can reach speeds as fast as 10 Mbps for downloads and 2 to 3 Mbps for uploads -- cable is easily the fastest technology overall. But because you must share that 10 Mbps with hundreds of your neighbors, your performance can be dragged down to analog-modem speeds during peak usage periods -- usually late afternoon and early evening.
Cable service costs between $30 and $60 per month, in addition to your monthly cable-TV service. Installation in a home is often free, but because cable wiring is not usually installed in office buildings, expect some installation fees if you're in a commercial structure.
The FCC has so far declined to force cable operators to open their networks to competitors, so cable Internet service is usually available from only one provider per market -- the same company that delivers your cable TV. If you're dissatisfied with the service of your cable provider, you might have to find another technology to use.
DSL: Over Your Phone Line
DSL is the fastest-growing high-speed service, with dozens of new providers entering the market every month. Running over ordinary phone lines at speeds as fast as 6 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads, DSL promises speed without sharing. But potential speed depends on your home's distance from your local phone company's central office -- after about three miles (16,000 feet), the signal degrades too much to be usable. The most common flavor of DSL is Asymmetrical DSL (ADSL), which features fast download speeds but slow upload speeds. Slow uploads make ADSL impractical for high-volume Web or FTP serving, but DSL service runs over your existing analog phone line without interference -- meaning you can surf and talk on the phone at the same time -- obviating the need for a second phone line.
ADSL is a less-expensive DSL variant, costing $40 to $200 per month (you'll pay more for faster speeds). If you live close to your phone company, you have more speed choices -- and therefore more price options. If you work from home and frequently upload data to a remote server, consider paying more for Symmetrical DSL (SDSL), which has equal upload and download speeds. In some places, you'll pay two to three times the monthly cost of ADSL, but it's worth the money if you need fast uploads. Many providers, such as Pacific Bell Internet, also offer custom telecommuting and branch-office services that let customers use DSL to connect remote users with office LANs -- for an extra charge.
All DSL orders start with a qualification check, in which the DSL provider determines how far you are from the local phone company and tests your line to determine what speeds are available to you. Be advised, however, that nothing is guaranteed until the service is actually delivered; technical complications may require increased fees or prevent you from getting DSL at all. Like long-distance companies, many providers are trying to underbid one another to snag customers. And as with long distance providers, promised performance tends to exceed what is actually delivered. One Web site that can help you locate a cheap DSL provider is http://www.dslreports.com, which includes online qualification checks for several nationwide DSL providers and a wealth of general DSL information.
ISDN: The Dependable One
ISDN is the oldest high-speed connection technology -- it's been around since the late 1980s -- but it's also the slowest, with a top speed of 128 Kbps. ISDN requires the use of a special digital phone line from your local phone company, but the service is available almost everywhere.
Unlike other high-speed options, ISDN isn't always on, but connecting with ISDN doesn't take long -- less than a second, compared with almost a minute for analog modems. Unfortunately, the connection drops after a minute or two of inactivity, so you can't easily use it for Web and FTP serving.
The ISDN line itself typically costs about twice as much as an ordinary phone line: from $25 to $50 per month. Internet service is another $25 to $50, which brings the total to between $50 and $100 in monthly charges. These numbers don't include hidden one-time fees, such as $100 to $300 in installation charges, and one- or two-cent usage charges -- per channel, per minute -- whenever you're connected to your ISP. (ISDN provides two 64 Kbps paths that can be used for data, voice, or a combination of both.) Fortunately, because ISDN is a dial-up service, you have a great deal of choice among providers. You should shop around for the best deal.
Keep in mind that ISDN follows the rules of telephone dialing, which means that unless your Internet service provider is local or has a toll-free number, you'll pay a premium in long-distance charges.
Satellite: High Speed in the Boondocks
If you can't get cable, you're out of range for DSL, and you don't want ISDN charges, Internet by satellite may be the answer for you. Only one provider currently offers this service: DirecPC (also the maker of DirecTV satellite television service). Promising speeds as fast as 400 Kbps, DirecPC exploits a weird split-access technique that uses a small 2-foot-wide satellite dish to receive Internet data and pipe it to a computer via its USB port or a PCI card. But the satellite dish only receives data. To send requests to the Internet, you need a modem Internet connection with an ISP. Your requests go out to DirecPC via the modem connection, and responses come back via satellite. Upload speed is therefore limited to your modem's maximum capacity -- a 33 Kbps upload speed is the limit of a 56 Kbps modem.
DirecPC's single-user home service is $29.99 per month, which includes modem Internet service ($19.99 per month if you use your existing modem ISP). This buys you 25 usage hours per month, with additional hours costing $1.99 each ($0.99 with your own modem ISP). If you're a high-usage surfer, you can also get bulk packages for a lower per-hour cost. Of all the available high-speed options, this one is the most complex to install, so unless you're handy with tools, you'll want to have a professional installer do the job, at a cost of $200 to $300.
At press time, DirecPC's software did not support Macintosh USB or Windows emulation. To connect Macs to the Internet, you have to use a Windows 95 PC as an intermediary, running third-party proxy software to share the connection with your Macs via Ethernet.
The Last Word
If you're tired of slow Web surfing and don't mind a little added cost, now is a good time to jump into the speed-surfing arena. Cable is the most convenient choice, with the highest potential speed and lowest price. DSL is the second-fastest option, but it costs more, and speed depends heavily on your distance from your local phone company. Either of these options gets you a dedicated Internet connection at megabit-or-better speeds, and both options are much faster than ISDN, which is worth looking at only if you can't get cable or DSL. But beware of the usage charges.
If you're really out in the hinterlands, a satellite feed may be your only option for high-speed access, but for now you'll need a Windows-compatible PC to enable access for your Mac.
The service you choose will depend largely on what options are available to you and what features you need. Now that you've figured it all out with the help of this guide, get online with a fast connection, and show Grandpa a thing or two.
Contributing Editor MEL BECKMAN is a consulting network engineer who helps Internet service providers implement high-speed digital access.
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Choosing A Fast-Internet Provider
Choice is a wonderful thing, but when it comes to high-speed Internet providers, the number of choices can befuddle even knowledgeable searchers. How do you find your way through the array of promises, features, and special deals and pick the provider that's best for you? Here's a quick map to lead you through the maze.
The first step in choosing which service to buy -- cable, DSL, ISDN, or satellite -- is to consider your needs and the fundamental limitations of each technology. Cable Internet providers usually do not provide static IP addresses, which means your numeric location on the Internet changes periodically. This can be a problem if you must access services, such as your employer's internal servers, that secure remote access by IP address. Cable providers also often disallow Web and FTP serving, which may clash with your Internet lifestyle. If you're a casual surfer without these special requirements, cable's attractive pricing (often lower than any other fast Internet service) may outweigh these disadvantages.
Telecommuters will likely find DSL a better choice, as DSL providers often offer static public IP addresses, limited Web serving, and even minimum bandwidth guarantees. Satellite Internet service is expensive and more complex to install, so you shouldn't even consider it if you can get cable or DSL. However, satellite-delivery prices are often competitive with ISDN's for heavy users, as both services incur usage charges.
Choosing between competing providers for the same service is only an issue with DSL and ISDN (cable providers do not yet permit competition on their networks, and satellite service is a single-vendor service). DSL, however, is intensely competitive, and you may well find several vendors vying for your Internet dollar.
Compare features and price to decide on a DSL or ISDN provider. Certain features -- such as multiple IP addresses or a Web site on the provider's server -- may be essential to you, setting the bar for competing vendors. Make sure you can get the features you require before considering price.
Every high-speed Internet service has two price components: start-up fees and monthly charges. Here is where shopping around can pay off, as many providers offer periodic specials in exchange for term commitments or affiliated purchases. Cable providers, for example, often give their existing cable-TV subscribers discounts on installation or monthly service. Start-up fees include the cost of the modem, which can be as high as $800. Sign up for a one-year hitch, however, and the provider may discount part or all of this cost.
Follow these guidelines, and you'll get more than just a fast Internet connection -- you'll get one that you can use the way you want to use it.