Picking the right fat pipe
Web Informant #164, 15 August 1999
Last week I presented Kim Maxwell's analysis of how the
growing popularity of high-speed net access will produce
bandwidth congestion. This week I want to talk about my own
experiences in this area and some thoughts on the way to
match applications with the various access technologies.
According to various hired guns, um, analysts, the number of
US cable Internet subscribers is nearing a million, and the
number of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) customers in the US
is over 100,000. This compares to about 20 million AOL users
(most of whom are still using 28.8 modems), by far the most
popular way people access the Internet.
I am squarely part of this trend. For the past several
months I have been using Cablevision's Optimum online
service at home and Covad/Wired Business DSL service at my
office. (Disclaimer: I am an advisor to both Covad and Wired
Business and a Covad stockholder.) I did this deliberately
to compare the two providers, both in terms of installation
and day-to-day operational experiences. So which is better?
Self promotions dep't
My earlier essay on how my email service was hacked was
picked up by Byte.com. Here are also links to my home
networking pieces as well.
And a piece on what the major print trade publications are
doing with their email newsletters has been published by Sam
Whitmore's Media Survey. I take a comprehensive look at the
kinds of email newsletters these publishers have created,
and some of the leading examples pro and con. You can find
it on his site here.
Cable is better for less-demanding home users. It is
relatively inexpensive. It uses existing technology (cable
coax) and an existing utility (cable) albeit one that is
almost universally hated more than any other. The biggest
challenge for cable access is running the coaxial cable to
the PC. Also, users will need to network their PCs and some
sort of firewall or network protection from the big bad
Internet outside. (To read more about the trials and
tribulations about installing a home network, see my
Byte.com articles at the link at the end of this essay.) The
issue for using cable for business users is that many cable
companies aren't set up to provide such access, or are
prevented by their local governments from doing so. And the
more people who hook up, the worse overall throughput and
latency gets, since cable is a shared medium.
Cable can range from easy to impossible to install,
depending on where the cables run in your home and where
your computers are. In my case, I made a single phone call
to Cablevision and they did the install about a week later
and finished everything they needed to do in about three
hours. You typically have a single choice with your cable
company: if they don't currently offer Internet access in
your area, you are out of luck.
Cable can also be very unreliable, and I personally wouldn't
run my business depending on cable Internet access (not that
I have that option available, since Cablevision doesn't
offer businesses any access). In my case, the line has gone
down numerous times, varying from minutes to several hours,
including an outage this past weekend during some
thunderstorms. I have heard similar stories from other cable
DSL is better for business users, even for small office/home
office users. DSL is more expensive than cable, but also
more reliable -- to my knowledge, I haven't experienced any
significant outages in my service. The installation
experience can be dicey, mainly because service may depend
on several companies working together who are currently
mortal enemies. These companies include the local phone
company (who needs to bring in a line to your home office),
the DSL provider (who maintains the overall data network),
and your ISP (who sets up the Internet access and any
applications such as email and news). In some cases, you
could elect to obtain all three elements from your local
At the time I was looking around earlier in the year, Bell
Atlantic DSL service wasn't yet available in my area. Also,
I wasn't happy with the price of my BA ISDN service, and
could get a continuous network connection for about the same
fee that I was paying for about 30 hours of ISDN connection
per month. Since I had a relationship with Covad, I elected
to go with them as my DSL provider and use a small ISP
called Wired Business who specializes in DSL connections.
(By the way, Wired Business is one of the first ISPs to
offer a totally automated means to signup for DSL service:
you go to their web site (www.wiredbusiness.com), fill in
information about where you are located and how you intend
to pay with a few simple web forms. It is a pretty neat
application and an illustration of what you can do with XML.)
The ordering process for my office DSL line was a bit more
complex than the home cable situation, reflecting all these
different players. And DSL comes in various speeds and
feeds, adding to the complexity. It was easy for me to get
confused as to whom to call for what problem during the
installation phase. But over the span of many weeks and many
"truck rolls" (as this industry calls the interaction of its
employees with you the customer), I got new wire for the
"last mile" to my office. Yet the hassles were worth it, and
now everything is working fine. I am also happy to see my BA
phone bill drop, mainly because I can't stand the company
and how I as a customer am treated.
Given the vocabulary, it isn't any surprise why both cable
and phone utilities have such disdain for you, its customer.
I mean -- last mile and truck rolls -- shouldn't these be
called the first mile and service calls? Maybe by changing
the terms we can improve attitudes and service levels. Maybe
we need more competition here in the high-speed access area
too. (Indeed, in addition to Covad and the local bells, both
Rhythms and Northpoint offer DSL service to many US cities.)
Overall, I prefer my DSL line at work to the cable line at
home. The cable companies don't really know how to run their
data networks, although for my family the continuous service
has really changed the way they interact with the Internet
and they are mostly satisfied with the service.
But what is happening with both DSL and cable is that we are
dividing our attention between companies that provide access
(the big pipes) from companies that provide applications
(email, chat, and so forth). I think this is a good thing.
When many of us got connected, we didn't care that the same
entity was both our access and applications provider, such
as our ISP or AOL. Now we are more discriminating.
This lies at the core of the current debate between AOL and
AT&T's cable operators, as more and more AOL users sign up
for cable or other high-speed access but continue to want to
use their AOL screen names for chat and IM. Some cable
operators want to provide their own applications and
content: this is at the core of the Excite/@Home merger. It
will be interesting to see how this all shapes up.
Copyright © 1999, 2000 media.org.
Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
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