Warp Speed Web AccessThe latest in fast Net for 2001: We compare the providers, identify the best broadband sites, and rate the new home gateways.
Here at PC World, we've long predicted the arrival of widespread high-speed Internet access. Now, finally, we can say it: After years of fumbling and false starts, broadband is here.
Thanks to better technology, experienced service providers, and steady customer demand, 2001 promises to be the first year that you can get fast Net access almost anywhere in the United States.
What's more, the Net is finally taking advantage of broadband. New Web sites tailored to high-speed access are pumping everything from financial news broadcasts to short movies. And new low-cost hardware lets multiple PCs in a small or home office share a single high-speed connection securely and efficiently.
Is all the news good? Nope. In our survey of 500 PC World subscribers with broadband connections (see " The People's Voice"), many complain of installation and other hitches; even so, almost 90 percent say broadband's benefits justify the hassle. Read on for our complete guide to fast Net access circa 2001.
Cable vs. DSL vs. Everything Else
Broadband encompasses many different technologies--some mainstream, some moribund, others immature. Which one you get depends on what's available in your neighborhood, how much you are willing to pay, and how broad the bandwidth you really need.
In theory, cable and DSL connections can reach speeds of 30 mbps and 8 mbps, respectively. In practice, both can easily match the 1.5-mbps speed of a T1 line, though your results will depend on a number of factors. ISDN and satellite continue to serve as second-tier alternatives, and high-speed wireless is on the way.
Cable and DSL aren't just faster than dial-up; almost all versions of both provide always-on access, so you don't have to wait while establishing a connection. They improve the Internet's accessibility so much, in fact, that you may find yourself spending more time online. Over half of the DSL users we surveyed--and two-thirds of the cable users--report spending more time online after getting their broadband connections than they did before. After switching to broadband, according to a study conducted by Forrester Research, users go online twice as often and stay on twice as long as they did before making the switch.
But with broadband's convenience comes risk. A computer that uses the same IP address for weeks and months is a sitting duck for hackers. PC users who connect to the Internet--and broadband subscribers especially--should protect themselves from attack (see " Safe, Secure Speed").
Cable Is King
According to research firm Jupiter Communications, cable ISPs provide three-quarters of all home broadband connections. The reason? Cable got there first. While the Baby Bells and independent providers were still wrestling with DSL's complexities, companies like Excite @Home and TCI (both recently absorbed by AT&T), Road Runner, and Comcast were busily rolling out broadband services on the existing cable infrastructure.
That head start may explain why the cable users who responded to our survey had better luck with installation than the DSL users. More than half the cable users we polled report having service up and running within a week of ordering, compared to only 17 percent of DSL subscribers. Though about 10 percent of cable installations took more than a month, the corresponding figure for DSL is nearly 40 percent. And a hopping-mad 15 percent of DSL users were still waiting for the truck after six weeks.
DSL is trickier to install than cable, Forrester analyst Bruce Kasrel says, but the main reason you can get cable quicker is provider experience. "A year and a half ago, cable took months," Kasrel recalls. "They had all kinds of installation problems, and poor coordination with their suppliers."
Cable installation may get even easier as cable services increasingly accommodate off-the-shelf cable modems that support the DOCSIS (data over cable service interface specification) standard, making self-installs a money-saving alternative. If you aren't comfortable about trying to set up your own connection, have your provider do it for you--92 percent of the cable users we surveyed went this route.
If you decide to order cable, look for promotional offers of free installation and a few months of free service. A free cable modem is a plum, since modem rentals can add $10 or so a month to your bill, and most cable modems cost about $250.
Cable is fast, but it isn't trouble-free. Because cable modems use shared connections, they're prone to slowdowns if too many users along a particular stretch of cable are online at one time. "Speed is never guaranteed," says analyst Kasrel. "There's definitely high tide and low tide."Consequently, you'll probably see the fastest cable-modem performance in the wee hours of the morning, after your neighbors have put their mice to bed.
Speedy access isn't guaranteed at any time. MediaOne subscriber Joe Schutte of Westland, Michigan, enjoyed two years of excellent service only to find one evening that access to West Coast addresses had slowed to sub-dial-up levels, a problem perhaps due to congestion in MediaOne's routing. Schutte has complained repeatedly, but two months later, he says, the provider hasn't delivered the promised fix--though it has refunded a month's fees.
"Big freakin' deal," he says. "I'd pay double for a fast, reliable, steady connection, but it seems that the broadband service providers count on people accepting bad service rather than no service."
Prospective subscribers should note that most providers cap upload speeds at significantly lower levels than they do download speed. As a result, cable is generally much faster at retrieving information from the Net (say, displaying a Web page or downloading a browser patch) than at uploading data to the Net (for instance, sending e-mail). That's not a serious problem if you use the connection mostly for Web surfing, but it could be an issue if you plan to shuttle hefty files between office and home PCs.
Superficially, DSL is much like cable. It's fast, it uses wires that already run to your house (phone lines, in this case, as opposed to CATV wires), and it usually costs between $20 and $60 per month. But there the similarities end.
Though the DSL users we polled found installation a bear, they report fewer service outages and more-consistent speed. Thirty percent of DSL users report unwavering speed in an average month, compared to only 15 percent of cable users. And though 10 percent of DSL users report daily slowdowns, the number among cable users is even higher--18 percent.
Two main challenges face DSL users: deciding what type to order and selecting a service to buy it from. With cable, one provider is likely to be the only game in town. Not so with DSL. Most states require the local phone company that owns the wiring infrastructure (firms like Pacific Bell and Verizon) to make it available to competing companies (like Rhythms and Covad). Probably the best way to find a DSL provider in your area is to consult DSL Reports, which reviews the zillions of national providers and shows which ones provide what kind of service to your exact address.
Unlike cable, DSL is usually available in multiple flavors at different price points. Your choices include ADSL (the A is for asymmetric), in which upload speeds are slower than downloads; SDSL (the S is for symmetric), where upstream and downstream speeds are the same; and IDSL (the I stands for ISDN), which overlays a DSL connection on ISDN. Despite being limited to 144 kbps, IDSL bypasses the strict distance limitations of the other two choices. In most instances, ADSL and SDSL connections must be located within 18,000 feet of the telephone company's central office. Consequently, they tend to be most widely available in urban and thickly settled suburban areas.
Which type of DSL you get depends on the speed you need in both directions and on your location. ADSL download rates can reach 1500 kbps or higher, but upload rates are capped at a lower number. The faster either rate is, the more you pay. The same is true of SDSL connections, which tend to be more expensive than ADSL but are better suited to businesses that need to transfer lots of files from their own servers or that must access a virtual private network (VPN). IDSL is a last-resort technology for people who can't get cable or one of the faster DSLs. Here, too, look for money-saving promotions, especially from the phone company.
Unlike with cable's mostly hands-off installations, you can hook up DSL yourself. Forty percent of the DSL users we surveyed performed the installation completely on their own. This response highlights another factoid: DSL users tend to be more technically proficient. "DSL is a little more attractive to technical users because of its two-way upstream/downstream potential," Kasrel states.
Of course, DSL presents its own problems, many of them traceable to the interplay between the phone company, the DSL provider, and (often) the ISP used for service.
Dave Pasquantonio from Mills, Massachusetts, had so many problems getting Bell Atlantic to install DSL that he went for cable access instead. "It was one of those situations where, every time you speak to someone, you get a different story about what [the problem] was," he says. "The same day my service was being turned off, I got a welcome letter from them and another DSL modem. None of the departments knew what any of the other ones were doing."
They Also Serve
If neither cable nor DSL are available in your area, you have other options. If you live more than 3 miles from the phone company's central office, you may still be able to get ISDN, which offers rates of 128 kbps in both directions and includes two analog phone lines. ISDN can be pricey, though, and its brief heyday is over, so you probably won't reap discounts and special offers for signing up.
If you need more than 128 kbps of bandwidth, consider Net access via satellite. Hughes Network Systems' DirecPC, long the only player, usually charges between $30 and $80 per month for the service, depending on how much time you spend online (satellite dishes start at just over $100).
Though DirecPC's 400-kbps download speed is nearly on a par with real-world cable and DSL rates, the connection is one way only. All upstream traffic runs through a dial-up modem connection, which causes a noticeable delay when you click on icons or otherwise interact with remote servers. Don't try to play Quake on the Internet using a satellite link. Boom, you're dead.
That limitation, however, may vanish when Hughes rolls out a bidirectional version of DirecPC. At press time, the company said the two-way service would be available in late 2000, offering 400-kbps downloads and 128- to 256-kbps uploads. Current DirecPC users would have to purchase new equipment for the service; prices for the new service and equipment upgrades weren't available as we went to press.
Meanwhile, an Israeli company may beat Hughes to the two-way satellite marketplace. Partnering with RadioShack and Echostar, Starband will offer an oblong dish with 500-kbps downloads and 150-kbps uploads to any location in the continental United States for $60 to $70 per month. Unfortunately, RadioShack insists that you purchase a Compaq PC with your Starband dish, raising the total hardware price to about $1200.
Don't feel like buying a brand-new computer system just to obtain a broadband connection? Echostar's 20,000 U.S. DishNetwork retailers will soon offer a dish and satellite modem for delivering Starband service to any PC. The monthly fee will be similar to RadioShack's, but the initial equipment and installation will cost a more palatable $300 to $500. Echostar hopes many of its 4.3 million DishNetwork customers will jump on the Starband wagon, but to do so they have to purchase a new 3-by-2-foot dish capable of reaching all the satellites.
Wireless is another newcomer to the broadband market. Metricom's 28.8-kbps Ricochet service has been around for years, but now the company is upgrading its system to 128 kbps and expanding service beyond the current 11 metropolitan areas covered. This convenient, always-on service is perfect for mobile users, but it costs a hefty $70 a month.
In the past, a few companies have offered special-purpose (and high-expense) fixed wireless connections--named for the receiver antenna aimed at a transmission tower. Now AT&T is offering a general-purpose fixed wireless service in at least one Texas test market. With 512-kbps download and 128-kbps upload bandwidth and an included telephone line for about $60 per month, AT&T's service may satisfy broadband demand in areas cable and DSL can't reach.
5 Reasons We (Still) Love Dial-up
In a world gone batty for broadband, dial-up Net access just isn't sexy. But the humble 56-kbps modem and dial-up ISP account still have their virtues. Consider the following:
Cheap is good. Broadband service starts at about $30 a month, and the necessary modems can cost $250 or more. But a 56-kbps modem costs as little as $20 these days, and free nationwide ISPs abound. If you have more time than money and don't need to gather MP3 files, download the latest Linux distribution, or watch the BBC online, dial-up is a good deal.
An unwired PC is a safe PC. Most broadband connections remain on 24 hours a day, seven days a week; many assign your computer a static IP address. That's like hanging out a flashing neon sign that says, "Yoohoo, hackers--over here!" Dial-up connections use temporary IP addresses, and since your PC spends less time connected to the Net, you're safer.
Cable and DSL modems don't travel well. In fact they don't travel at all, unless you've got a really long LAN cable. It's a safe bet that laptop users will continue to depend on dial-up modems long after broadband has become standard for desktop PCs.
Dial-up is everywhere. Broadband is far more pervasive than it was a year ago, but if you live in Simcoe, North Dakota, chances are poor that you'll be able to order a cable modem or DSL connection any time soon. Even satellite access can be foiled by a leafy tree standing in the wrong location.
Simplicity. I'm no Luddite, but sometimes I yearn for the days when the only things flooding into my computer were e-mail, my own feverish typing, and the occasional soft drink. Now, I'm constantly installing or removing the latest buggy media-player software, herding endless files onto CD-R, and watching movie trailers. Does any of this make me more productive?
Pick Your Pipeline (chart)
|Technology||Speed down/up1(approximate)||Time to download 10MB file (minutes)2||Price (per month)3||Pro ||Con ||Urban||Suburban||Rural||Home||Power user||Office|
|Cable||200 kbps-30 mbps/ 128 kbps-3 mbps||1.4||$30-$50||Blazing downloads; comparatively quick installation.||Limited upload speed; bandwidth sharing can degrade performance.||Good||Good||Poor||Good||Satisfactory||Satisfactory|
|DSL||144 kbps-8 mbps/ 128 kbps-8 mbps/||1.8||$30-$500||Variable-bandwidth services can be tailored to your needs and budget.||Higher bandwidth tends to cost more; long waits for installation.||Good||Good||Poor||Good||Good||Good|
|Fixed wireless||500 kbps/ 150 kbps||2.7||$60||Nice if you can get it.||Not yet widely available.||Poor||Poor||Poor||Satisfactory||Good||Good|
|Satellite||400 kbps-500 kbps/ 28.8 kbps-256 kbps||3.4||$30-$80||New bidirectional services bring DSL-like speeds to rural users.||Inexpensive one-way service requires dial-up modem for upstream communication.||Good||Good||Good||Satisfactory||Poor||Poor|
|ISDN||128 kbps/ 128 kbps||10.7||$70-$150||Provides two analog lines or a 128-kbps Internet connection.||Not fast enough for the price.||Good||Good||Satisfactory||Satisfactory||Poor||Satisfactory|
|Analog dial-up||56 kbps/ 33.6 kbps||28.4||free-$20||Cheapest Internet connection.||Provides a fraction of broadband speed.||Excellent||Excellent||Excellent||Satisfactory||Poor||Poor|
Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World.