Speedy Net connections offer promise, problems

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Toronto Computes, March 1999

For most of us, the promise of the Internet seems to always remain just that?a tantalizing promise. A taste, but never the full meal deal.

Graphics, audio, video from around the world are out there, but getting it just takes too long to be practical. A wealth of free software waiting for you to download, complete with the warning: 4 and a half hours at 28.8 Graphically intense pages that take several minutes to appear on screen.

It just isn?t fair!

Many Canadians, however, are finding themselves with not one, but two competing schemes to bring high-speed Net access into their homes. This leaves them faced with two decisions?whether to trade their dial-up access for more expensive fast access, and if so, how to choose.

First off the mark was the TV cable companies, upgrading their cable network, to allow Internet signals to piggyback into users homes. First marketed by many cable companies as Wave, more recently, Rogers and Shaw are offering services from the US-based @home network while other cable companies are continuing to use the Wave name for their offerings. Service is now available in most Canadian metropolitan areas.

More recently, Canadian phone companies have begun to offer high-speed ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line?aren?t you glad you asked?) technology to home users. In BC, this service is marketed directly to consumers by BC Tel, under the name Multimedia Gateway, while many Bell Canada customers can purchase ADSL service directly from one of several service providers. Currently, availability varies greatly?in some areas, service is fairly widely available, in others it?s still in the testing stage.

Where available, for the end-user, these competing services are more similar than different. Both provide high speed, always-on Internet connections, using wiring already installed into most homes. (Many users suggest that the always connected feature is as compelling as the higher speeds). Both work by multiplexing their signals, so that a single TV cable or copper phone wire can carry both the standard signals (TV or phone) and the Internet information, without the signals interfering with one another.
In both cases, a so-called modem is provided as part of the package, bearing little resemblance to the standard modems used  for dial-up services. And in both cases, your computer needs a standard Ethernet network interface card to connect to the cable or ADSL modem.

Installation for either system will cost users more or less $100, including a visit from a computer technician to ensure the network adapter is properly installed. (If you have your own adapter already working, check whether you can save some money on the installation?but if you?re running a network at home, you will need a separate network adapter for the modem installation). Afterwards, be prepared to pay higher monthly rates than for dial-up service: about $50 per month for the various cable systems, and $60-70 per month for the ADSL systems plus service provider. (Costs vary from company to company, province to province). As a result, the people most likely to opt for one or the other are users who have installed (or were considering installing) an additional phone line dedicated to their computer?in which case, the costs come close to what they?re currently paying.

There are some differences, though, due to the nature of the technologies. All the cable users in a neighborhood are on a single network node?as a result, they share bandwidth. That means that when more users are actually using their cable connection, speed drops. On my Wave connection, downloads are markedly faster in the early mornings when fewer users are online.

Unlike cable, ADSL users each have dedicated bandwidth. Here, the limitation is distance from the phone company?s office?the further you are from the office, the lower your performance. Users who are too far away (more than a couple of kms) simply won?t be able to get ADSL at all.

The speed of your connection, however, is just one of the factors affecting Internet performance. The metaphor of the powerful sports car on the highway at rush hour remains true?even with high speed access, users will find that access to some Web sites will slow to a crawl from time to time, depending on traffic to the site and other factors that aren?t under the control of the cable or phone companies.

Other differences are not driven by technology. ADSL subscribers can get the service through any of several Internet Service Providers, and get an e-mail address and optional web site through that ISP. Cable customers will get those services through Wave or @home.

The cable companies are not aiming their services at businesses?most don?t have TV cables installed at any rate. And BC Tel also is steering businesses away from ADSL. Businesses serviced by Bell Canada may be able to get ADSL through one of their local ISPs.

Many Canadians still lack access to either technology. Others only have one to choose from (in most cases, cable). For those lucky enough to be serviced by both high speed technologies, both provide premium Internet access at a premium

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan