Surfers crave speedier connections to Internet Bandwidth: Alternatives to dial-up connections are starting to be available.

September 28, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

If the online broadcast of President Clinton's grand jury testimony last week proved anything, it's this: We need faster connections to the Internet.

Most viewers who dialed in to watch clips of the performance over standard phone lines probably weren't amused by what they saw: a herky-jerky video of the President with an out-of-sync soundtrack that looked and sounded like one of those horribly dubbed Godzilla flicks from the '50s.

Next time a sex scandal hits the Web, you can be prepared. High-speed alternatives to dial-up modems are emerging. They're not all cheap, and not all of them are widely available in Baltimore. But any one of them can deliver Web video faster than a phone line and supercharge your Web browsing performance.

"Once consumers get a taste of high-speed Internet access at home, they'll never go back to dial-up," said Forrester analyst Christopher Mines, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc.

Forrester predicts that 16 million U.S. households - a quarter of all online homes - will use high-speed connections to the Internet by 2002.

Even dial-up modem users may soon get a slight speed boost. Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to do away with 22-year-old regulations that limit modem transmission speeds at 53.6 kilobits per second. If the plan gets final approval, 56K modems will be able to handle data at their advertised speed. Even so, the move is largely symbolic, since most phone lines can't support speeds any higher than the mid-40s, regardless of the modem used.

Here's a thumbnail guide to four high-speed Internet technologies.

Cable

For most speed freaks, Comcast'some high-speed Internet service is hard to beat - if you can get it in your neighborhood and you're willing to pay.

Coaxial cable offers a hypersonic, 10 megabit per second

pipeline to the Internet, 170 times faster than the quickest dial-up modem. This means that digital movies or 15-megabyte games such as Quake download in minutes rather than hours.

The technology also provides a round-the-clock connection to the Internet without tying up a phone line. And megabit for megabit, it's hard to find a better deal. Cable Internet requires a cable modem that's included in the one-time $140 setup price. After that, you pay $40 a month if you're a Comcast subscriber and $50 if you're not.

The service is available only where Comcast has upgraded its network to digital standards. This includes includes most of Baltimore County and heavily populated parts of Howard County, such as Ellicott City and Columbia. Comcast recently started its Harford County upgrade.

Baltimore city's cable provider Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), does not offer cable Internet service but has not ruled it out. This is also true in Carroll and Anne Arundel counties.

One potential problem with cable Internet service is that customers share the same pipeline. If too many people sign up and use it at the same time, the service could slow down considerably. That hasn't happened, and probably won't for some time, says Comcast officials.

ADSL

Telephone companies around the country are trumpeting the Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) as the next big thing for speed-starved Internet junkies. And for good reason: It's the only high-speed technology that uses your regular phone copper line. It works by using frequencies that that aren't used by voice transmissions.

This summer Bell Atlantic launched InfoSpeed DSL, its first ADSL service, in the Washington, area and elsewhere. Baltimore won't see it until well into 1999, according to Bell Atlantic spokesman Larry Plumb.

When it arrives, ADSL will transform your Web browser into a bullet train, with a maximum transfer rate of 7.1 megabits of data per second - nearly 130 times quicker than the fastest dial-up modem.

Like cable, ADSL transfers information to your house faster than it handles data swimming upstream from your PC. But since most people send out only a few keystrokes worth of data at a time, this imbalance probably won't matter much.

ADSL technology allows you to receive simultaneous voice and data transmission and is always on, so you don't have to sit through those annoying dial-up beeps every time you want to check your e-mail.

To get ADSL you'll need an ADSL modem, a network card, and a line splitter to separate data from voice traffic. The phone company also has to install equipment in its central office.

ADSL isn't cheap. The installation and equipment charges will run about $525, although promotions may chop this price by several hundred dollars. Monthly subscription costs depend on connection speed, and range from $40 for a 640 kilobits per second connection to $110 for a 7.1 megabit link.

ADSL also has several limitations that may prevent subscribers from hitting all cylinders - or getting the service altogether. For example, DSL users need to live within 3 miles of a telephone company central office.

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