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A High-Speed Dash to Develop Faster Online Access

March 23, 1998|KIM KOMANDO | Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk-radio host and author

For years, the standard telephone modem was the only way for a home user to get online. I could dial in with a 1,200-baud modem, then a 2,400-baud modem, a 9,600-baud modem, a 14.4-Kbps modem and a 28.8-Kbps modem.

Today, there's a mad race by companies trying to develop technologies to offer home users high-speed online access. There's 56K modems (which, although a standard has now been ratified, can't really carry your data at 56K), cable modems (which are expensive and, quite likely, a short-lived access alternative) and digital subscriber line (DSL for short, which is only available in small pockets around the country).

One high-speed access option now available nationwide is DirecPC (http://www.direcpc.com), a service that can beam Internet content directly to a 21-inch satellite dish on your roof. With DirecPC, you can receive Internet content at rates of 200 Kbps to 400 Kbps, seven to 14 times faster than a 28.8-Kbps modem. But as with any high-speed option available today, there are a few downsides.

First, you need a separate Internet service provider, in addition to the DirecPC service. You dial into your ISP using a regular modem to request a Web page. But instead of the Web page being sent back to you via your ISP, it's routed through the DirecPC Network Operations Center, or NOC. From NOC, the Web page is bounced off the DirecPC satellite to your dish and into your computer.

That is one of DirecPC's shortcomings--you have to pay for two services. In addition, information that you send out through the Internet is limited to the speed your modem supports.

Although DirecPC is available nationwide, it's not accessible everywhere. It requires an unobstructed line of sight between your dish and the satellite. If you happen to live on the wrong side of a hill, for instance, DirecPC is not an option.

Perhaps most alarming about DirecPC is the price. The upfront cost is about $500, which gets you a 21-inch elliptical satellite dish, a DirecPC 16-bit ISA/32-bit PCI card that goes in your Windows 95-based Pentium computer, DirecPC software, installation instructions and a one-year limited warranty on the equipment. (A $100 cash rebate is available at some U.S. retailers.)

Installation is extra, and there's a $49.95 activation charge.

DirecPC offers several access plans. All plans come in 200-Kbps and 400-Kbps versions, with prices adjusted accordingly. The least expensive costs $19.95 for unlimited off-peak access at 200-Kbps. (Off-peak hours are between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.) If you need to surf the Web during peak hours, you'll incur a $3.95-an-hour surcharge.

Even the most expensive plan at $129.95 a month doesn't offer round-the-clock unlimited access. For this rate, you get unlimited 400-Kbps access during peak hours but rack up extra charges during nonpeak hours.

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However, if you live in an area that offers no other high-speed Internet access options, you may find DirecPC worth the price tag.

Suppose you have no telephone or cable service. If Nortel (http://www.nortel.com) is able to move ahead with its plan, by the turn of the century you may be able to get high-speed Internet access through the power lines that bring electricity to your home. Late last year, Nortel, in conjunction with Norweb Communications, a business unit of United Utilities of Great Britain, announced that Digital Powerline technology can do just that.

The promise is great. Since nearly all the wiring is already in place, the cost to implement Digital Powerline would be low. The only extras you would need are a little box that would sit next to your power meter and an expansion card in your PC. Digital Powerline can handle speeds of 1 Mbps (that's about 1,000 Kbps). However, Nortel predicts that in a live setting with several homes using the service, speeds are likely to be closer to 500 Kbps.

In December, Seymour Park Primary School in Britain became the world's first public user of Digital Powerline. At the school, 12 personal computers have been connected to the Internet by Powerline. All 12 computers can operate concurrently from just one connection. Like cable and DSL, a Digital Powerline connection is always "on."

The Nortel/Norweb venture plans to roll out Digital Powerline in European and Asian locations throughout the year. There's additional development that needs to be done before Digital Powerline can be unleashed in North America, but Nortel claims that North American testing is scheduled to start early next year.

The way things look now, your biggest concern with 2000 won't be how your computer handles the dates. It will be which high-speed Internet access provider you want to use.

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Kim Komando is a TV host, syndicated talk radio host and author. You can visit her on the Internet at http://www.komando.com or e-mail her at komando@komando.com. Her national talk radio program can be heard on Saturdays from 7 to 9 a.m. on 97.1 KLSX-FM.

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