SAN FRANCISCO (06/23/2000) - The phone rang. "Mr. Bass?" The voice sounded official. "Your house is glowing on our satellite photos." No wonder. I had two digital subscriber lines (DSL), a cable-modem connection, and an Internet-beaming satellite dish installed in my home office.
See, I'd been given a plum assignment: Get the four high-speed Internet connections installed and running. Then tell you how to do it as painlessly as allowed by law.
You'd think it was hog heaven for a technodweeb. It was--at least when everything worked.
No doubt you've heard tales of terror--canceled installation appointments, hosed PCs, and outages so long you go through Web withdrawal. I won't try to buffalo you. Some of the horror stories are true. At the same time, tons of people have had good experiences and are ecstatic with their pumped-up connections.
That's because the leap from 56 kbps to 1.5 mbps is an astonishing experience.
Listen, broadband will intensify your Internet life like no other computing upgrade you've tried. How about downloading a 5MB file in less than 29 seconds, or 55 MB in less than 7 minutes? How about no tying up a phone line or even dialing out--since your connection is always on?
Each high-bandwidth service has its own pitfalls and issues. I know, I've been through DSL, cable-modem, and satellite hell and lived to talk about it (just call me Mr. Bandwidth). I've also heard from nearly 400 business and home DSL users. Some of their tales are juicy.
DSL is the new darling of broadband: It's fast, it performs more consistently than cable, it uses your existing phone wires, and you don't share your connection with other homes. If you're close enough to the phone company's central office and the CO is DSL-enabled, it's available. But DSL demand is so high, many would-be users are put on waiting lists. Some installations require repeated visits by technicians. And--as in my case--solid connections just get flaky.
Up until this year, cable modem was easier to get than DSL, and cable installation has always been less harrowing. But cable modem suffers from security risks, just as DSL does, and bandwidth can be sluggish because you connect to a network, just like the local area networks that connect PCs in most workplaces.
Satellite modem is a terrific idea, but only if you can't get DSL or cable modem. While downloading is fast, satellite is one-way (at present) and usually requires analog modem uploads. ISDN? No way--it's expensive, not a continuous connection, and at 128 kbps, slower than molasses.
Fair warning: My allegiance is to DSL. I'll help you get the service, learn the jargon, and avoid installation problems. I'll also give you an understanding of the pros and cons, as well as pointers for figuring out which flavor of DSL service is best for you.
DSL Nuts and Bolts
DSL uses the idle frequencies of the existing copper phone lines in your home or office. Unlike cable modem service, which your cable company probably provides in only one form, DSL comes in several types--each with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Two you need to know about are ADSL and G.Lite.
The latter is a variation on ADSL that computer-savvy users can install by themselves. The A in ADSL means that the line is asymmetric--data arrives on your computer (downstream) at a faster rate than it goes back out (upstream).
Most people will need fast download speeds for pulling music and image files off Web servers, among other uses. Unless you're uploading massive files to a service bureau or sending big files from home to the office, you probably won't need a superfast upstream speed.
If you're a business user and must have fast uploads, look at SDSL. It's a symmetrical DSL connection that provides the same speed in both directions.
You'll pay more for the connection, but you may also get it installed more quickly than you would an ADSL line. That's because vendors selling SDSL bypass the waiting lists by renting lines from the phone company.
Both ADSL and G.Lite have two terrific assets going for them. The first is price. You can grab an ADSL connection for between $30 and $50 a month, depending on your location. If your timing's right, you might pull off a coup and get a free DSL modem and installation. For instance, at press time, Pacific Bell Corp., Southwestern Bell Telephone Co., Nevada Bell, and Ameritech Corp. were promoting just that: $40 per month with free installation and DSL modem.
Check for specials by watching the Web site of each DSL vendor in your area.
The second key feature after price--and the clincher for me--is that both ADSL and G.Lite let you use one phone line for simultaneous voice calls and high-speed data access (SDSL connections accommodate data only). Saving the cost of an extra phone line for a dial-up modem is enough to justify getting DSL.
Here's how to understand the numbers and put them in perspective. Your clunky analog modem lumbers along at 56 kilobits per second. Typical upstream DSL rates range from 128 to 384 kbps, potentially almost 7 times faster than your old modem. Downstream speeds are measured in megabits per second; a 1-mbps line--1000 kbps--is almost 18 times faster.
ADSL speeds are usually advertised as 384 kbps for downstream and 128 kbps upstream. Those are the guaranteed speeds, but they are sometimes way faster because ADSL can theoretically handle speeds of up to 8 mbps for downloading and roughly 800 kbps for uploading. (G.Lite is slower, with its downloads topping out at about 1.5 mbps and its uploads at 384 kbps.)DSL providers can guarantee such speeds because they're selective about their customers. Most will accept orders only if you're within a specific distance from the central office. For instance, Pacific Bell and US West want customers to be within 17,500 feet of the CO, while Bell Atlantic's limit is only 15,000 feet.
To determine the limits DSL providers set on distance from the central office, check the DSLreports distance chart (www.DSLreports.com/distance).
The sweet spot for a perfect ADSL connection? Less than 12,000 feet from the CO. But if you're less than 17,500 feet from the CO (G.Lite supports 18,000 feet), you'll still be in good shape. The farther you are from the CO, the slower the speed. Once you get past about 22,000 feet, you're heading for DSL never-never land. Don't forget, though, that there's still cable modem or satellite--or a moving van. You can check whether you're close enough to qualify for DSL by going to the 2Wire site at www.2wire.com/DSLlookup/ findDSL82.asp. After you enter your street address, it tells you whether you're within the allowable distance from the CO and estimates the maximum speed you can get. But only your DSL vendor can determine your exact distance from the CO.
Pick a Provider
Before choosing a DSL provider (most are ISPs) check with the comp.dcom.xDSL newsgroup and listen to what other DSL users are saying. Read the news at DSLReports.com, the premier DSL resource site. Consider picking up David Angell's DSL for Dummies (IDG Books, $25, 1999). Then dig deeply into the resources listed in www.pcworld.com/aug00/DSL.
For a comprehensive list of DSL providers in your area, check out Internet.com's The List at www.thelist.com.
Local phone companies are obligated to allow third-party companies--known as Competitive Local Exchange Carriers--into their CO. Covad, Rhythms, NorthPoint, and other CLECs rent the "last mile" of copper lines--the distance from the CO to your home or office--from the telephone company. CLECs usually partner with Internet service providers, and consumers generally deal with the ISP, not with the CLEC.
Some ISPs use Point to Point Protocol Over Ethernet connections. PPPoE makes your DSL connection work like a dial-up account. You'll still have a perpetual connection, but to get onto the Internet, you'll need to use a dialer once a day.
To compare ISPs' monthly rates for DSL in your area--and to read both glowing and scathing customer reviews--check out the 2wire site (www.2wire.com/DSLlookup/findDSL82.asp).
If you're computer savvy, consider installing the DSL kit and kaboodle yourself. Many ISPs will waive the installation charges. Telocity (www.telocity.com) charges $25 to ship a do-it-yourself kit--modem, filters, cable, and software--and offers a 30-day service guarantee.
Once you've settled on a DSL provider, you need to do some hardware homework before the installers arrive.
* Check your PC and make sure a slot is available for a network card. An alternative is to use a USB ethernet adapter to make the network connection.
* See if you have enough RAM. Most ISPs require 32MB of RAM on your PC and recommend 64MB.
* Get your system working--without errors--before the installer arrives. Then do a full backup.
* If you already have a network installed, use NetSwitcher, an $8 shareware program (available on www.fileworld.com) to preserve your network settings. If there's a problem, NetSwitcher will let you restore the old settings.
* Turn off your antivirus software (which is always a good idea before doing any new software installation).
Some 400 DSL subscribers responded to a poll I took, and their experiences prove that every installation is different. While many DSL installations go like clockwork, others can be harrowing. Service technicians are often poorly trained, appointments aren't honored, and troubleshooting is mind-numbing.
Want more? Your Windows system may get hosed in the process. "It took four sets of techs ten days to finally get my computer running like it was prior to their installation," says Krystyna Jutson of South Pasadena, California.
On the other hand, Dan Vittum, an InterAccess subscriber in Chicago, says, "DSL installation went like a breeze, which surprised me, given the horror stories [and] my archaic in-building wiring."
Before you set an appointment time, "try to get in touch with everyone involved--the installer, ISP, and telco--before they arrive at your door, and make sure everyone knows what's on the order," says David Schachter, a startup CEO living in San Francisco. In Schachter's case, the technician was ready to install an SDSL line at his house, while Pac Bell was at the CO setting up for a G.Lite installation.
My advice? Ask the provider for an order number so you can call a day or so before the scheduled appointment. Then request that the installer call before coming out. Try to get a morning appointment, the first of the day. Later appointments are riskier: If the technician gets stuck with a gnarly installation just before yours, guess who's going to wait?
Installation generally has two stages: First, the telco will send someone to your home to test the "last mile," the line between the CO and you. This might happen a few days or even a week before the actual installation. Next, a technician will come to your home, perhaps replace your existing copper line, and install and test the DSL modem.
Often installers aren't allowed to connect the DSL to your PC. Instead, they'll bring a notebook PC to verify the connection, hand you a network card, and say adios. My installer had a hearty laugh when I asked her to connect my PC. But I offered her a cup of java, and guess what? She didn't hesitate hanging around while I finished the installation, all the while offering sage advice.
Record all the network settings before the installer leaves. And put on a pot of coffee in advance.
The installer will undoubtedly test your line's bandwidth. But it's still a good idea to run a few Internet speed tests yourself. While time of day and Internet traffic will affect the test results, you should still be able to tell whether you're getting what you paid for. If the speeds aren't up to snuff, complain loud, long, and vigorously.
Before and after you perform any speed test, clear your browser's cache. That way, the test is performed using files that are from the Internet rather than files in your hard drive's cache. In Internet Explorer 5, select Tools*Internet Options, and click Delete Files (in IE 4.72, you'll find Internet Options under the View menu). In Netscape Navigator, select Edit*Preferences, move down to Advanced, click Cache, and then click Clear Disk Cache.
I chose ISPs Concentric and EarthLink for my two DSL connections so that if I had any trouble--which I did--the ISP would handle the finger pointing. When my line went south, I called EarthLink; the company contacted Pacific Bell and did the dirty work for me.
My fast Concentric SDSL 1.1-mbps line worked like a charm for three months.
Then one day it unceremoniously dropped to 192 kbps. (My chin is still bruised from the short stop.) The culprit was corrosion on the phone lines, a common mishap. In my case, water from a recent rain had seeped into the cabling outside my office. Solving the problem took four calls to Concentric's tech support, a few e-mails detailing the problem, and an hour's worth of online testing with a technician. Once the problem was pinpointed, Concentric worked with Covad and Pac Bell to track down and resolve it.
Document any problem so you can present technical support with details--when speed dropped, how long it was slow, and what you did to remedy it. If you don't like the response, dig in your heels and ask for the next tier of support.
If your supersonic DSL line starts acting like your old analog connection, here are a few things to check:
* Make sure you use the cables supplied by the vendor: The cable from the wall jack to the DSL modem may look similar to the cable from the modem to your PC.
Chuck Buchheit, a Las Vegas consultant, got his DSL connection running only after he switched to the cable supplied by Sprint with the DSL modem. "I dug out the cord that was shipped with the modem, we got it to sync, and voilà--124 kbps up and 512 kbps down, as advertised," says a sheepish Buchheit.
* Check the network card: If your system crashes more often or you get random error messages after DSL is installed, the problem may be due to a network card conflict.
* Check your passwords: Your DSL modem may come with a default password. It's essential to check the manual and change it immediately.
* Don't throw away the ferrite chokes: "Those little plastic cubes that wrap around the modem's cable and power line keep interference from radios and other devices out of your LAN," advises Saul Roe, a Pasadena, California, consultant.
* Reboot the modem: If you lose all Internet access, simply unplug the power cord, wait 30 seconds, and power up the modem again. If that doesn't help, check the modem's Sync or Link lights. Blinking indicates a line problem. Make sure all the cabling is attached snugly (something I unhappily discovered was not the case on my system).
* Get a microfilter: After getting DSL you might notice static, humming, or noise on your phone line. If your DSL connection uses a line splitter, call your provider and ask if microfilters can be installed on each voice device sharing the line. Devices in your home also emit radio frequencies that can interfere with your DSL. Isolate your modem from halogen lamps and AM radios.
* Fix sluggish downloads: If your Windows dial-up settings were tweaked for faster throughput, you may need to untweak them for DSL. Pacific Bell subscriber Doyle Strange discovered that the PC changes he made to speed his analog modem actually slowed his DSL. Check the Navas page at navasgrp.home.att.net and DSLreports at www. DSLreports.com/ tweaks to check your settings.
You can find files mentioned in this article at www.fileworld. com/magazine.
Steve Bass is a PC World contributing editor and writes the monthly Home Office column.
For DSL, Closer is Faster
The speed/distance numbers below are theoretical maximums and represent the speed the line is capable of, not necessarily what the vendor provides. Your DSL connection speed will be influenced by the age, quality, and gauge of your copper wire, among other variables. Distance from the central office is measured in cable length rather than as the crow flies.
A Good Second Choice
Cable modem is terrific--if you can't get DSL. There, I said it and wasn't struck by a cable modem outage. I've had a hot-and-cold affair with cable modem. When I first tried having it installed, I was told the wait was nearly a year. By the time the cable company got around to my street, two years had passed. Cable-modem downsides? Your connection may get sluggish as more and more people in your area subscribe, unexpected outages may occur, and technical support can be poor.
If you're not quite sure whether cable modem service is available in your area, check the cable modem information page at www.cablemodeminfo.com.
Don't get me wrong, cable modem has many advantages over DSL. Installation is generally easier, and the speed can be higher. MediaOne Road Runner, for example, provides 1.5 mbps downstream and 300 kbps upstream. My service from Charter Communications, on the other hand, isn't terrific: 384 kbps down and 128 kbps up.
Rates and fees are on a par with DSL: Monthly cable charges run from $35 to $55, with installation fees another $100 to $150. My advice? If you're in no rush, wait for the cable company to call you, or watch the newspapers for ads--providers regularly offer free installation.
Some providers will stick you with a $10 surcharge if you don't also subscribe to their television service. Unfortunately, most cable modem providers have a local monopoly, so switching to another cable service usually isn't an option.
When I was finally given an appointment, the technician arrived right on time.
Installation took under an hour and was painless. The installer connected the cable modem to my PC, changed the network settings, and spent time explaining what he was doing. He even told me about a few ways to increase my connection's throughput.
For a few cable modem speed tweaks, try the SpeedGuide page at www.speedguide.net.
You can make some requests when you have your cable modem installed. Even if you already have cable in your home, the line may be old and brittle, and it could break if you move the modem later. I recommend that you ask for the installation of new cable--but the job may require rewiring from the outside cable source.
To ensure you don't lose bandwidth from line interference, have the installer put filters on all the cable lines, especially if you are also getting television service. If the line needs to be split to reach both the television and the computer, pay the extra money and let the cable company use its equipment to ensure that lines meet the required specifications. For more troubleshooting tips and tricks plus help with setting up your cable modem, check out www.cablemodemhelp.com.
While most cable modem users seem happy with the installation, many are distressed with the support when there are problems. "Installation was a snap," says A. Berger, a Time Warner Cable/Road Runner user in North Carolina. "But the toll-free first-level support personnel, though courteous, often are clueless, with advice that sounds scripted. The local support staff, once I discovered their phone number, were very knowledgeable."
You may see a drop in performance during evening or other peak hours because you're sharing the line with your neighbors. The first six months of my cable-modem service saw wild swings in speed from line sharing. You can find out how many of your neighbors share your bandwidth by running the CommView network sniffer, available at both www.fileworld.com and www.tamos.com/cv.htm.
CommView monitors your PC's network activity, including IP statistics and network connections.
It's inevitable that cable access will slow down during high-traffic periods, but you needn't sit still when it happens. Ivan Taylor, a cable modem user in Los Angeles, has a handy tip: "Whenever I see a prolonged period of slowness, I call my cable company and insist that their technicians--not the phone support people--check the settings for my account. Sometimes their system has experienced a minor outage and accounts get reset incorrectly."
You can also file a complaint with the state agency that regulates cable operators. In most states, that agency will be the Public Utilities Commission.
Cable companies may try to blame their problems on your equipment. "After a couple of [outages], I now just tell them to evaluate their own systems first before I spend an hour on the phone doing their tests (on my hardware)," says Rob Frais, an AT&T@Home cable user in Canton, Connecticut.
Guarding Against Hackers
Warning: Once you have high-speed access, you're open to significant security risks. With simple Windows tools, anyone with malicious intent could easily--and invisibly--access and alter your computer's files. Planting a nasty Trojan horse, such as Backdoor or BackOri-fice, can be a piece of cake.
John M. Goodman, a computer book author, has had lots of strangers knock at his virtual door. "My BlackIce Defender software reports that in the past three months I've had 628 suspicious attacks and 32 critical attacks. And fewer than half a dozen of those were triggered by me (checking my security)." A suspicious attack may be simply a hacker scanning a wide range of PCs. If your PC is pounded with numerous scans from the same person, though, the threat becomes critical.
Disable File and Print Sharing
If you have your network's File and Printer Sharing option enabled (the Windows default), you have an enormous security gap on your hands. To disable File and Printer Sharing, click Start*Settings*Control Panel and select the Network icon, then File and Printer Sharing. Uncheck I want to be able to give others access to my files and I want to be able to allow others to print to my printer(s). Click OK twice.
Find out if you're vulnerable to attack by logging on to Steve Gibson's ShieldsUp site (grc.com/ ShieldsUp). You'll get the straight scoop on Internet security, a valuable probe of your system's defenses, and a comprehensive how-to tutorial.
Another security issue: With a continuous connection, both static and dynamic IP addresses can be seen by hackers, making it even easier for them to break into your PC. Three useful firewall programs are Zone Labs' free ZoneAlarm ($20 for business use); Symantec's $60 Norton Internet Security 2000, which includes both a firewall and Norton AntiVirus 2000; and Network ICE's $40 BlackIce Defender, which guards your system from all means of intrusion. All three are fail-safe, locking your network down tight. Don't browse on broadband without one.
What To Ask
Here are some questions to ask the DSL provider before placing an order--and, with luck, before the DSL goblins strike.
* How long have you been in business?
I recommend you choose a company with at least three years of experience.
* Do you offer 24/7 technical support?
Think Sunday night, big project due Monday, Web access essential.
* Do you provide dial-up access for use when I'm traveling?
If you're on the road a lot, find an ISP that provides at least 60 minutes of dial-up time, preferably toll-free.
* Are there any current promotions, and is there a price guarantee if you drop your fees later?
This information may not be volunteered, so you better ask.
* Can I get an external rather than an internal modem?
External modems are better because you can watch the indicator lights, which makes troubleshooting lots easier. And powering down the modem doesn't involve rebooting your PC.
* Is there a charge to install an ethernet jack in other rooms?
If the charge is nominal, get an extra jack in any room that may eventually have a computer.
* Is the amount of data that can go through the DSL connection restricted?
If you need to download humongous amounts of data, choose an unlimited plan.
Although most ISPs allow unlimited access, it's wise to ask and be sure.
* What is the bandwidth guarantee, and is it tied to a yearly contract? Is there a penalty to cancel?
If the bandwidth drops below guaranteed rates, you may qualify for a refund, or you may even be able to break the contract.
* Is inside installation included? If not, do I pay a flat rate or an hourly fee?
Hedge your bets: If your home has old wiring, opt for an ISP with free installation or a flat fee.
* Will the installer actually connect the DSL and make sure that it works with my computer?
If you're not technically adroit, this question's critical. Often the ISP's technicians check the line with their notebook computer and leave the rest to you.
* How many computers can I connect to this DSL hookup? Does the modem you supply double as a router?
Determine if the provider restricts your use of a router or any device that allows you to share the connection.
* Do you supply a static or dynamic IP address?
A static address is exclusively yours; dynamic IPs are randomly assigned each time you log on. It usually doesn't matter unless you want to use your PC as a Web or FTP server (then you'll need a static address). Many DSL providers don't give you the choice, and some explicitly forbid you from running a Web server.
Sharing All That Speed
Once you get DSL or cable modem service, you'll want to share it with others in your home or business. In fact, if you have two PCs, you'd be silly not to give everyone a piece of the speed, since networking multiple systems is now a cheap and easy job (see "Home Wired Home," www. pcworld.com/jun00/network).
WinGate Home can get everyone onto your high-speed bandwagon. The $40 program is easy to install and links up to three networked PCs on one Net connection.
(If the one PC connect- ed to the Internet crashes, however, everyone else on your network loses the connection.) Download a trial version of WinGate Home at www.fileworld.com. As an alternative, use Internet Connection Sharing, a feature built into Windows 98.
The Hardware Way
A better way to share the connection--and the way I do it--is with hardware, which allows me to turn my PC off for the night while my wife is still connected to the Internet. I'm using Linksys's $199 Instant Broadband EtherFast Cable/DSL Router. It's a four-port router (expandable to 253 users, though preferably not all in my office) with a built-in firewall. The router needs only one IP address, works with Point to Point Protocol Over Ethernet as well, and is easy to install.
There's ample help for learning how to share a Web connection. For cable modems, check Tim Higgins's site (www.timhiggins. com). DSL subscribers can investigate the details at DSLreports (www.DSLreports.com/tweaks).
$40. Network ICE, 650/532-4100, www.networkice.comLinksys Instant Broadband EtherFast Cable/DSL Router$199 list price. Linksys, 800/546-5797, www.linksys.comNorton Internet Security 2000$60 list. Symantec, 800/441-7234, www.symantec.comSprint Broadband Direct$40 per month, plus one-time equipment charge ($99 to $299). Sprint, 888/996-0001, www.sprintbroadband.comWinGate Home$40. Deerfield.com, 517/732-8856, www.wingate.comZoneAlarmFree for personal use. Zone Labs, 800/210-5517, www.zonelabs.com.