High-speed services vary

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get one that fits your needs

September 16, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

DID YOU EVER click on a link to a Web site and then sit there, staring at a blank browser screen, waiting for the page to appear?

Or maybe you've clicked on a link to a video or audio broadcast online, then waited an eternity while a picture of a blank TV screen displays a cryptic message that says "Buffering."

Dial-up Internet customers live with these delays every day. But as millions of Americans switch to high-speed service - half the nation's Internet users have it today - they're discovering that broadband isn't always as "broad" as they expected.

Don't get me wrong. Broadband on its worst day is a lot better than dial-up at its best. But there are plenty of bottlenecks and glitches - some the fault of broadband Internet service providers and others just facts of life on the Net.

If you're thinking of switching from dial-up to broadband, or thinking of switching from one type of broadband to another, it's a good idea to know which is which - and do some research to find the service that's right for you.

First a word about moving data over networks. All digital information moves as a stream of electronic ones and zeros. Whether it's the text of an e-mail, a photo of Aunt Rhoda or a Britney Spears video, it's stored and transmitted in these tiny pieces, known as bits.

The speed of a network is known as bandwidth, and it's measured in bits per second. This is a little different from the terminology we're used to, which measures the size of computer files in bytes, kilobytes (thousands of bytes) or megabytes (millions of bytes).

It takes roughly 10 bits to transmit a byte, and you'll see Internet speed advertised in kilobits per second (kbps), meaning thousands of bits, or megabits per second (mbps), meaning millions of bits.

What does that mean in real life?

Well, consider that this column runs about 60,000 bits, while the text of Moby Dick runs about 12 million bits - about the same as the digital photo of the kids I like to show off. An episode of The West Wing recorded by my TV-capture software runs 2.7 billion bits. Do some simple math and you'll realize that anything longer than a basic e-mail requires moving a lot of bits.

Dial-up Internet connections, which use standard phone lines, have a maximum theoretical speed of 56 kbps for downloading (from the ISP to your home) and about 33 kbps for uploading (from your home to the network). That's at least 100 times faster than the first modem I bought 20 years ago. And for basic Web browsing and e-mail it's fine - if you have a little patience.

But if you want to send that digital photo to mom, you're talking about four minutes of upload time - and hours to post an entire album to an online photo-sharing service. Downloading a single tune from an online music store takes about 11 minutes, which definitely deters impulse buying. As for digital video and Internet phone service - forget it.

That's why dial-up customers have been deserting their phone lines in droves for broadband service, which promises and usually delivers speeds that are breathtaking in comparison.

For most of us, broadband comes in two flavors: cable or DSL. Cable is delivered via the same cables that bring TV to your home, while DSL uses standard phone lines - but a different part of the "pipe" from the one that carries your voice.

The speed you get depends on the provider's equipment, your location, the ISP's policies and, in some cases, how much you pay. Many ISP's are developing two or three tiers of service - more bandwidth for more money.

Most broadband ISP's split their bandwidth asymmetrically - download speeds are considerably higher than upload speeds - often by a factor of 10. This suits most users, who are more interested in retrieving information than transmitting it.

According to ComScore, an Internet research and measurement company, the average download speed for cable users last spring was about 2.178 megabits per second, while DSL users clocked 861 kilobits per second. That would seem to give cable a considerable advantage.

But cable is more expensive in most markets - typically $50 a month versus $40 for DSL. And cable's infrastructure, which puts customers in a neighborhood on a single network, can slow traffic where there are many active users.

Another issue to consider is how much speed really matters.

For simple browsing and e-mail, there's no particular advantage to very high speeds. You're not moving much data, and delays are most likely to be caused by general Internet congestion and the load on the Web server you're visiting.

Most of the general Internet traffic I've timed meanders at 300 to 700 kbps, so it doesn't make much difference whether the maximum speed of your service is 768 kbps or 3 mbps.

It does make a difference if you want to download large music files or watch video online. For users in this category, download speed is everything. But photographers who like to post large images online might be willing to give up some download speed if a service offers faster uploads.

How fast is your service? To find out, visit DSLreports.com, one of the best all-around sites for learning about broadband, solving problems, sharing triumphs and horror stories and checking out prospective ISPs. Despite its address, the site's official title is now Broadband Reports and it covers all types of high-speed Internet access.

Its toolbox includes links to dozens of Web sites around the country offering tests that measure your upload and download speed. Because of Internet congestion and the load on individual servers, no single speed test is definitive, so try several - they're quick.

I tried seven sites, as near as Washington and as far as Seattle. They recorded download speeds ranging from 1.3 to 2.3 megabits per second - below Comcast's advertised 3 mbps speed limit but not bad.

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