Just when you've got your Internet setup figured out and running smoothly, along comes the next big glittering upgrade--speed.
Depending on your location in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita or Antelope valleys, you might have access to a digital broadband connection that will bring the Internet into your home or office up to about 25 times faster than possible with regular dial-up modems.
World Wide Web pages pop onto the computer screen much faster, download times are slashed and streaming audio/video comes through with better (if still far from pristine) quality.
And because broadband is a direct connection, it's always "on," making dial-up delays and the cartoon noises produced by analog modems artifacts of the past.
Digital broadband is delivered via cable TV or telephone lines for about $50 a month. That's more than twice the going rate for a standard Internet dial-up service (such as America Online). But with broadband, you can avoid the cost of a second phone line for your computer--something many people have obtained to avoid interruptions (or missed calls) while online.
Compared to the cost of a second phone line and dial-up service, broadband can cost only about $5 more monthly.
Sound like a great technological breakthrough? Maybe, but it's hardly new. Broadband via cable lines, commonly called cable modem service, debuted in 1996. Telephone broadband, called Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service, began rolling out in 1998.
Even so, broadband has yet to catch on like the Internet--in part because cable systems and telephone companies have taken far longer than once expected in offering the service. In many areas of the country, including parts of the valleys, it's still unavailable, and it might continue to be for years.
Broadband also has had an image problem, born of highly inflated speed claims, technological snafus and complex pricing.
"People were exposed to so much hype about broadband that it's no surprise they were confused," said Gary Arlen, a Bethesda, Md.-based consultant specializing in broadband. "There were all sorts of claims and counterclaims being made."
Worst of all, Arlen said, the public was not getting full disclosure on some of the limitations to both cable modem and DSL technology. "There are some dirty little secrets people were not being told," he said.
Another problem has been the volatility of the cable industry. With only one exception--Time Warner Cable--every cable system in the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys announced an ownership change in 1999. This turnover has led to delays in cable operators upgrading their systems in order to offer cable modem service.
In the last several months, there have been indications that broadband might finally be ready for prime time. As of Sept. 30, there were an estimated 1.2 million cable modem subscribers nationwide, Arlen said. By the end of the year, that figure had risen to almost 1.6 million, according to Paul Kagan Associates, a Carmel-based media research firm.
That's an increase of 25% in just three months.
Nationwide, DSL had almost 275,000 customers as of September, according to TeleChoice, a Boston-based consultant. More recent figures were not available, but several analysts believe the number of DSL subscribers is growing at an even faster rate than for cable modems.
Nonetheless, the choices and processes involved in getting broadband remain somewhat confusing and in some cases, quite frustrating. The following is a primer on digital broadband--how it works, its true speed, availability, advantages/disadvantages, pricing and outlook for the future.
How It Works:
Cable lines, designed to bring a large number of TV channels into homes, can handle far larger quantities of raw data than ordinary telephone wires were designed to convey. But in order to offer cable modem Internet service, a cable system has to have been upgraded to be interactive.
DSL works by digitally splitting ordinary telephone lines into two segments, one for regular telephone traffic such as voice and fax, and the other for Internet data. At a central telephone office, the segment carrying regular traffic is fed into the traditional switching network while the other is plugged directly into the Internet. DSL is offered by the area's two telephone companies--Pacific Bell and GTE--and also by some Internet service providers and independent companies.
The fastest dial-up modems currently available convey data at a maximum 56,600 bits per second, or bps. Cable modem operators claim speeds ranging from 500,000 to 1.5 million bps, or about nine to 26 times faster than dial-ups. The cable operators, however, offer no minimum-speed guarantees.
One of the not always disclosed "secrets" of cable modems Arlen referred to is the fact that its signal is delivered on a shared line. If you happen to be the only user in the neighborhood surfing the Internet on your cable modem, your speed will be top notch.