Technology Solutions

Speeding Up Internet Connections

For too long, the answer to the question of how fast your Internet connection should be has hovered between modems that transmit 28.8 kilobytes per second and modems that transmit 56 kbps. Before that, the choice was between 14.4 kbps and 28.8 kbps. We only were inching forward on increasing speed because we were asking the wrong question.

Do not ask how fast your modem should be. Ask what setup you need to use the Internet to its fullest. The Internet has become such an indispensable business tool that its daily use can be a tooth-grinding exercise in waiting for slow downloads of Web pages or e-mail attachments. Luckily, once again, technology has caught up with our dreams.

Modems, ISDN, and More
Today's typical Web user probably has a 28.8 kbps modem. The next step up from that would seem to be a 56 kbps modem, but beware of advertised speeds. Users of 56 kbps modems report that they seldom, if ever, reach 56 kbps, with the actual connection speed often hovering in the 40-50 kbps range. (For information on 56 kbps modems, see the 56k Modem Info Center at .)

Next on the speed scale is a communications line installed directly into your home or office. An integrated services digital network line provides transmission speeds up to 128 kbps; a digital subscriber line promises 6 megabytes per second. Check with your local phone or Internet service provider for rates, which can run into hundreds of dollars a month. ISDN lines are available almost anywhere; you may need to wait for DSL availability in your area. See and select the Bandwidth link under Internet in the list of options to read more about ISDN and DSL options.

But the reality is that users want to download everything in seconds, regardless of size. When downloading a property package that someone sent as an attachment and it takes 10 minutes to download, you've got a problem - and cutting back to six minutes is missing the point. How long would it take your system to download one e-mail with 24 attachments that included image, text, spreadsheet, and even HTML files? Would your system even be able to handle such an e-mail? Would you like a system that allows you to perform such feats? Read on.

The Cable Modem
A new contender for the role of mass-marketing hero is the cable-modem company. While people were dreaming about putting fiber-optic lines into every home (and being boggled by the projected costs), cable television companies realized that they were sitting on top of a massive, already-existing high-speed network running into about 105 million homes in the United States. And so they began to modify their systems to offer Internet access over the same cables they use to offer television content. And though cable television most closely is associated with home services, that's likely to change because businesses stand to save the most from switching to cheap cable modem services. Cable Datacom News () reports an estimate that cable operators had 111,000 paying subscribers to high-speed Internet services as of April 15, with coverage offered to 25 million homes in North America. It was, in part, the opportunity to marry telephone, cable entertainment, and Internet access that compelled AT&T to merge with the TCI cable company in March.

The benefits of cable Internet service are many. For example, a Time-Warner Road Runner cable Internet account includes unlimited high-speed access, no hourly charges, no need for a dedicated phone line, up to five personal e-mail addresses, speeds up to 100 times faster than a 28.8 kbps modem, no need to pay for an extra phone line, Web space for the subscriber, and original content (similar to America Online’s proprietary content, only slimmer and based on parent corporation Time-Warner's CNN and Time magazine brands).

The major players in providing cable Internet service today appear to be MediaOne (), AT&T Broadband & Internet Services (formerly TCI) (), Time-Warner Cable (), and TCA Cable TV (). If your local cable company does not yet offer this service, ask when they will offer it before you shell out for an ISDN line. Costs can be as low as $80 per month and can go lower if bundled with a cable television subscription. If you are paying $24 per month for AOL service, $35 for cable television service, and considering paying for an ISDN line, then the $80 or less becomes really attractive.

There are some drawbacks to cable modems, one perceived and another real, but minor. First, some people will have to get over the shock of trusting their cable company with their Internet service. "Send my important business e-mail over the same company that can't keep the cable from being knocked out during a rainstorm?" you ask. Cable companies are aware of their image problem, and one way they are dealing with this is by having different divisions handle their modem and television businesses. For example, a recent installation of a cable and Internet account with a Time-Warner cable company on the East Coast was a two-trip affair; first the TV set was linked up; then, a different technician showed up to install and set up the Internet connection.

A real problem is that the cable modem is not compatible with a service such as AOL; in compensation, the cable service includes online services such as those offered by AOL. But if you are an AOL adherent, then you may want to pare down your AOL service agreement from unlimited usage to one of its lower-cost limited usage deals and continue to connect to it through your 28.8 modem, using your cable modem for everything else. Also, AOL's recent interest in helping to acquire MediaOne shows that sooner or later, AOL will be available over cable, too.

T-1 Lines
Finally, there's still the big-wallet alternative. The T-1, a high-speed phone line provided by your phone company or through your ISP, for a long time has been seen as the pricey high-speed Internet option. (For a description of T-1 lines, see .) You may be able to reduce an estimated $1,000-per-month cost for a T-1 if you get a shared T-1, but it still is the most expensive option short of buying your own ISP. Though the cable Internet service provides T-1 speeds for a fraction of the cost, the hard truth may be that your local cable operator will tell you that cable Internet service still is a year or two away in your region. So your highest-speed option remains a T-1.

John Zipperer

Tech Links is written by John Zipperer, new-media editor of the Commercial Investment Real Estate Institute. Contact him at (111) 111-4466 or [email protected]

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