Faster Internet surfing no longer a pipe dream

for those equipped to ride the Rogers Wave July 8 1997

Are you tired of trying to access the Internet and waiting and waiting and waiting? Good news: significantly faster Internet service is quickly becoming available across the Lower Mainland.

Local TV cable company Rogers Cablesystems is busy expanding access to its Wave cable modem service, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Available to only a fraction of Vancouver at the moment, Rogers already claims to be the largest cable modem provider in the world, and expects to have the service throughout the city by year-end. (Check whether your neighbourhood's connected at wave/owa/wave.WaveHPage.)

Through the luck of being in a neighbourhood that was connected early, I've been able to use this service for a couple of weeks now.

Here's how it works.

You get two installers. A computer technician who actually works for SHL SystemHouse International comes to install an Ethernet network adapter into your PC, Mac or notebook, and to make sure that it's properly set up and running. (Cable modems aren't really modems, which are devices to convert computer data to phone line sound. Instead, they're actually computer network devices. No phone line is required, which means no more competing with the teenagers at home for a turn to tie up the line.) Simultaneously, a cable technician checks to make sure you have a strong, clean cable signal, and runs a standard TV cable line over to your computer. The cable modem -- a space age device looking most like a high-end car stereo amplifier, cooling fins and all -- is hooked up between the Ethernet card and the TV cable.

The computer installer updates your network settings with the correct obscure Internet addresses and makes sure you have the latest versions of Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. Then, after a bit of a wait to make sure that you're properly recognized by the network, you're ready.

While a standard high-speed modem is running at about 33,000 bits (33 Kbps) of data per second, and digital ISDN lines boost that to 128 Kbps, Ethernet is capable of 10 million bits per second (10 Mbps). Rogers is currently limiting its service to a mere 500,000 bits per second, which is still 10 to 15 times faster than modem speeds and three times as fast as ISDN.

Of course, anything that sounds that good must have a catch.

There are a couple.

Modem speeds are only one of several things slowing down current Internet access. No matter how much bandwidth you throw at a connection, if you're trying to connect to the same site as hundreds or thousands of others worldwide, you're going to have to wait your turn. The Wave doesn't do a thing for the time it takes to connect to a busy site. But once you're connected, you'll get what you want noticeably faster.

At least most of the time. At peak evening times, I've measured data transfer rates that at times were almost as pokey as modem rates. But at off-peak times, I've often measured speeds at 15 to 20 times what I'd expect with a standard phone line and modem connection. For example, I'd been avoiding downloading the 17MB update for Windows NT, which with a good modem connection would mean tying up the phone line for an hour and a half or more. With the Wave, it took me just under seven minutes (and didn't require a phone line at all).

Just as your TV is connected to the cable whether or not you turn on the set, with the Wave, you're connected to the Internet at all times, whether or not you're using your browser. That means no more log-ons. As a result, I find I'm more likely to leave my browser running in the background for hours at a time, and am more likely to open it up whenever I need or want a bit of information from the Internet. Not needing to calculate the time and cost involved or to worry about the family dynamics involved in hogging the phone changes how I use the Internet in the same way that getting hooked up to the city water main differs from having to go out to the well with a bucket.

The cost is $150 to install ($200 for Macs or notebooks) and a $55 to $65 monthly charge, on top of your existing TV cable bill. For many people, that sounds expensive, but for users already paying for an additional phone line for their computer, along with the $20 or so charged for Internet service, it may be worthwhile. Expect Rogers to be marketing a service aimed at business users by year-end.*

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