Not long ago, modem speeds of 56,000 bits per second -- or 56K, in geek-speak -- were considered technologically impossible. So when the first wave of 56K modems hit the market, it was considered a minor miracle.
But now, even 56K access is looking a little pokey.
There's a growing need for speed among Internet users for handling streaming audio and video, for downloading MP3s, for grabbing the latest shareware, for Internet telephony, and for a variety of other applications.
And that's putting a spotlight on the two newest forms of high-speed Internet connections: cable modems and DSL.
Cable modems got the early edge in the race to provide these high-speed or ''broadband'' connections to consumers. More recently, telephone companies have been offering comparable DSL connections.
Because these two broadband technologies are still being rolled out, they're not yet available everywhere. But in a rising number of locales, consumers can subscribe to either. And that's prompting questions about which is better and why.
For the purposes of this column, we'll be comparing the DSL service and the cable Internet access.
Before we talk about the differences, let's look at the similarities.
Both cable and DSL offer high-speed connections far in excess of what consumers can get through conventional dial-up modem links to the Internet. Even better, both cable and DSL offer ''always on'' connections. That means there's no wait while your modem dials out and connects to the Internet; you're connected to the Net at all times.
With that as preamble, let's compare these competing broadband technologies in some relevant categories:
Speed: Both cable and DSL are faster than ordinary modems, but they still face certain issues with respect to speed.
For one thing, cable and DSL move data faster downstream (from the Internet to the user) than they do upstream (from the user to the Internet).
Since most consumers receive far more data than they send, it makes sense to use the speed where it will do the most good. But users who want to send a lot of data out to the Internet should be aware that the upstream connection is limited to 128K for both cable and DSL.
Getting a grip on downstream speeds is a little trickier.
For its basic DSL service, Southern New England Telecommunications, for example, says it is guaranteeing downstream speeds of at least 384K -- roughly 7 times as fast as the fastest conventional modem. At times, those downstream speeds could rise as high as 1.5 megabits per second, but speed varies somewhat based on distance from a telephone company switching station.
Cable is a lot more circumspect about saying what speeds users can expect. ''I don't quote speeds,'' said Kevin Canel, marketing manager for high-speed data at AT&T Cable Services. ''We've learned to stay away from that.''
Perhaps part of the reason is that cable speeds are more variable. At times, cable connections can race as fast as 6 megabits per second; but at other times, speeds can be considerably slower -- especially if a lot of other people are using the same service at the same time.
Of course, both cable and DSL are subject to the vagaries of the Internet itself, such as network congestion, overcrowded services and the like. In short, there's no easy way to say which is faster where you live.
Sharing: Both cable and DSL services generally allow consumers to share their high-speed connection with more than one computer by networking PCs together inside their homes.
Pricing and Installation: Because they are now competing head-to-head in many markets, DSL and cable Internet access are comparably priced.
For example, SNET's basic DSL service and AT&T Cable are identically priced at $39.95.
But the best news on pricing may be this: neither DSL nor cable Internet ties up your phone line. So if you
are paying extra for a second phone line for your modem, you can drop that expense.
In effect, you'll be getting DSL or cable Internet for the same price you're now paying for dial-up access (about $20 for a phone line and about $20 for an Internet provider, equals about $40 per month).
And all that extra speed and the ''always on'' connection come as a bonus. Not a bad deal if you're ready to move into the Internet's fast lane.
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