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The Broadband Battle

Last updated Feb 25, 2005.

I’ve been using modems for as long as I’ve been using computers. Back in the early 1980s, I would play the text-based Colossal Cave Adventure on a time-share system accessed via a modem with a data throughput equivalent to 0.440 Kbps. Over the years, as modem manufacturers trotted out new models boasting ever faster speeds, I continued upgrading to stay on the leading edge.

Curiously, each speed increase would seem impressive immediately after an upgrade, but soon the higher throughput became unremarkable. Part of that perception can be attributed to familiarity breeding contempt, but it’s also true that how we use our computers changes over time to take advantage of new technologies. As data throughput increased, it became practical to download not just text, but also graphics, music, and even video. These larger file types quickly sopped up the "excess" capacity of our modems.

For me, the most significant jump in throughput came in the late 1990s when I switched from a 56-Kbps dial-up modem to 1500-Kbps DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service. Instead of waiting and watching as web pages were slowly sucked through a narrow dial-up straw, bits were blasting through my huge broadband pipe, popping up new pages almost as fast as I could click links. I never again gave a second thought to downloading obscenely-large system software upgrades, or surfing graphics-laden web sites. My computer is my livelihood, so it was easy to justify paying twice as much for DSL service that was 25 times faster than dial-up.

Even though I have been very happy with my DSL service, I was intrigued lately when Comcast began advertising the heck out of its cable Internet access, claiming it is "Faster than DSL. Faster than ever." How much faster could cable really be?

Comcast’s web site promotes "Speeds up to a blazing 6 Megs for even faster downloads!" Initially I was turned off by the fact that "6 Megs" is meaningless as a measure of speed because the rate isn’t specified. At least the small type footnote spelled out the details: a maximum download speed of 6 Mbps with a maximum upload speed of 768 Kbps. But I remained apprehensive because of the "up to" qualifier and the disclaimer that states "actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed." Nonetheless, I decided to give Comcast a try because even if it delivered only half the maximum, that was still twice the speed of my DSL service.

If you do not already subscribe to cable television, you must pay $100 for a Comcast technician to install the cable modem and drop a cable line to your house, if necessary. Current cable TV subscribers may opt for the $10 self-install kit instead. If you can follow instructions and aren’t intimidated by plugging in a few cables, I recommend saving some money and doing the installation yourself. If there’s no existing cable outlet within 25 feet of your computer, you’ll need to pay $20 to have one installed.

With the coaxial cable plugged into the cable modem, all you need to do is connect the modem to your computer. If you have only one computer, plug the modem directly into its Ethernet port. If you have a network and want to share your high-speed Internet access, connect the cable modem to a router with a switch, and plug your computers into the router. Once you register your cable modem with the cable company, all you need to do is reconfigure Network preferences to properly supply IP addresses to the connected computers.

Once my cable modem was connected and my Mac’s settings were configured, it was time to put the pedal to the metal and see if cable was indeed faster than DSL. My DSL service had a rated download speed of up to 1500 Kbps and an upload speed of up to 128 Kbps. According to DSL Reports’ speed test, in reality I was experiencing a maximum download of 1300 Kbps and upload of 110 Kbps. In other words, my real-world results were about 85 percent of the rated speed. Since DSL is a dedicated line, these results were consistent day in, day out.

Cable Internet access differs from DSL in that it is a shared resource. The more users in your neighborhood who have and use cable, the slower the overall speed for each because they are dividing up the total broadband pipe. That’s why cable companies can’t guarantee a particular level of service.

Living in San Francisco, I feared I would find myself sharing my cable connection with a lot of tech heads who would degrade the service, but was pleasantly surprised to find that even at its worst, my cable modem proved to be well over twice as fast as DSL in real-world tests. It was not unusual to sustain download speeds that were more than four times that of DSL, and my upload speeds were consistently triple that of DSL.

To be fair, the DSL service I had subscribed to was not the fastest one available. The top-tier service currently available boasts data throughput rates almost identical to that of cable, priced comparably ($50 per month for DSL compared to $43 monthly for cable).

If you are motivated to get a broadband connection to save money by using Voice over IP (VoIP) instead of traditional telephone service, keep in mind that in most places you need to have an existing phone line to get DSL, whereas it’s possible to order cable Internet access without TV service. So when shopping around, be sure to compare the total costs for net access and phone services, and don’t forget that your cable company may offer special prices for a package of bundled services. Whether you decide to go with DSL or cable, I’m sure you’ll never miss the days of dial up.