Los Angeles Times

Monday, May 25, 1998

Getting a Grip
As online options proliferate, how do you figure out which is best for you?
By JIM HEID, Special to The Times

Carlin Wong is apartment hunting. A UCLA student and programmer for Symantec Corp. ([Current Quote][Company Capsule]) ([Current Quote][Company Capsule]) in Santa Monica, he wants the usual things: a short commute, reasonable rent.
     But he also wants a neighborhood that's well-connected. Wong is confining his search to areas of West Los Angeles that are served by cable modems, one of a growing number of fast-Internet-access options aimed at home and small-business users.
     Wong sometimes works at home, going online to keep in touch with co-workers. He's not alone. A 1997 Pacific Bell survey found that 32% of Los Angeles-area residents perform some work at home. And market researchers at Cyber Dialogue say that 37% of the small businesses in the United States use the Internet to expand their reach and reduce courier and long-distance expenses.
     There's just one problem: Most Internet users are saddled with slow telephone modems that transfer 28,800 bits of information per second. Using a 28.8-kilobits-per-second modem to travel the information superhighway is like driving a Volkswagen bus into a head wind.
     Modem manufacturers, phone companies, cable TV providers and satellite broadcasters are all working to supercharge online access. Fast connections make Web surfing more efficient, speed the transfer of large disk files and enable telecommuters to tap into office networks.
     What's the best online option for you? It depends on your budget, on the tasks you perform online and, in some cases, on where you live.
     The most popular of the faster-than-28.8k options is the 56k modem. Typically priced at less than $150, 56k modems are easy to set up and are broadly supported by Internet service providers. They can also send and receive faxes--a plus for home offices.
     The name implies speeds of 56kbps, but phone line noise makes rates of 40 to 50k more common. Worse, upstream speed is slower than downstream speed: Outgoing data moves at 28.8 to 33.6k. That's not a drawback for Web surfing or sending short e-mails, but it is a disadvantage if you frequently e-mail large files to clients or colleagues.
     Two conflicting 56k standards can cause high-speed headaches: You can't use an "X2" modem to connect to an ISP that uses "K56flex," and vice versa. The new V.90 standard fixes that, but most ISPs are only now upgrading their modems to support V.90. So it's still essential to buy into whichever 56k standard your ISP uses.
     Fortunately, all current 56k modems accept free V.90 software updates, so when your ISP goes V.90, you can too.
     Even a 56k modem is too slow for users who routinely send and receive large files. Some modem makers are pushing products that combine two modems and two phone lines, a scheme called modem bonding.
     "Twenty-five percent of U.S. households have two or more phone lines," says Lisa Pelgrim, a senior analyst for Dataquest. "If you have two lines, bonding allows you to use the bandwidth you already have." Everyone else must factor in the costs of another line.
     Most modem-bonding products provide smart line-management features: One modem hangs up when a call comes in on its line. So there's no missing incoming calls just because your modems were bonding.
     Some products also provide network jacks, so a small office with a few PCs can share the modem pair.
     On the downside, few ISPs support bonding, and those that do charge more for it. In the Los Angeles area, Netcom supports it in the 310, 213 and 562 area codes and charges $10 more per month. Pasadena-based EarthLink Networks will support bonding but has not announced a timetable or pricing.
     And the speed? Two bonded 56k modems typically yield between 60 and 90kbps--not bad, but still shy of all-digital technologies, such as ISDN.
* * *
     Short for integrated services digital network, ISDN is an old technology with a new lease on life thanks to the Internet. ISDN is versatile and widely available, even in rural areas.
     An ISDN phone line provides two 64kbps channels. Both channels can bond to form a 128k pipe--fast enough for George Jetsonesque applications, such as videoconferencing.
     ISDN connects quickly too: Press a button and you're online within a second. There's none of the squawking that goes on between analog modems, and you have the illusion of always being connected.
     To connect a single computer to an ISDN line, buy an ISDN modem ($200 to $300). If you have two or more networked computers, spring for an ISDN router ($400 to $700) instead--it allows all your machines to share the wealth.
     Installing ISDN used to involve technical migraines and frustrating volleys of finger-pointing between equipment manufacturers, Internet service providers and phone companies. It's easier now--ISDN's popularity has led manufacturers and phone companies to team up to offer packages that include setup.
     Each ISDN channel has its own phone number and can carry normal phone calls. Most ISDN modems and routers have two jacks for phones and fax machines. This versatility is why Gary Kratzer, a project manager for America Online, chose ISDN for his Laguna Niguel home office.
     "Considering that you get fast access and two phone lines, you can't beat the price," he says.
     What is the price? PacBell's Home Pack ISDN service costs about $300 for installation and an ISDN modem. The line itself costs about $35 a month, and data calls cost about 1 to 3 cents per minute for each channel, depending on when you call. (You get 200 free night and weekend hours per month.)
     You also need an Internet access account, which costs an additional $30 to $50 per month, depending on the ISP and the package you choose.
     ISDN is costlier than 56k modem access, but its speed, flexibility and wide availability make it a strong contender for home workers. Unless, that is, the cable guy has blessed your neighborhood with cable modems.
* * *
     A cable modem doesn't provide extra phone lines, but it costs only about $50 a month--and it leaves ISDN in the dust. Download speeds range from about 400kbps to more than 1.5 megabytes per second, while upload speeds are in the 200-to-400k range.
     For Steve Leon, a public relations consultant who works out of his Ladera Heights home, that speed "translates into awesome productivity." Leon's computer industry clients have fast business connections, and "they think nothing of sending me huge, multi-megabyte files," he says. "When I was stuck with a 28.8k modem, I was choking."
     Cable modems tap into an area's cable TV circuitry, and therein lies the rub. According to Dataquest, only about 25% of the nation's cable systems are capable of carrying two-way traffic. That puts cable modems within reach of 11.5 million households. But technical glitches and a lack of standards have slowed deployment--only about 200,000 cable modems are in use.
     Leon's service comes from MediaOne, which serves numerous areas of West Los Angeles and will serve the West Hollywood area in the coming months. Installation is $99 (MediaOne is currently running a $49 special), plus $49 for a networking card. Monthly service, including modem rental, is $39.95 for MediaOne cable subscribers, and $49.95 for non-subscribers.
     @Home Network, the country's largest cable modem service, provides not just fast access, but exclusive content, such as Internet video feeds from CNN and near-CD-quality music. @Home Network provides service in Orange County through Cox Communications; installation is $149.95, and service is about $55 per month, including modem rental. In parts of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, @Home will soon be available through Century Communications.
     In Pasadena and Riverside, EarthLink Networks has teamed up with Charter Communications to provide cable modem service. Installation costs $169, and access, including modem rental, costs between $50 and $75 a month, depending on speed options.
     In areas where cable systems don't yet support two-way traffic, some providers offer "telco-return" service: A cable modem handles downloads, but you need a conventional modem for outgoing mouse clicks, e-mail and file uploads. This scheme lets you surf and download at warp speed, but it ties up a phone line, lacks the always-on advantage and does not speed outgoing file transfers.
* * *
     While cable companies race to rewire, phone companies are hawking a technology they claim will provide comparable speed. Digital subscriber line, or DSL, is getting more press than a presidential intern, but it is only just becoming available.
     DSL comes in several flavors, but a variant called DSL lite holds the most promise for home-office and small-business users. Unlike other variants, DSL lite doesn't require a visit from a phone company installer. Speed is roughly 384kbps upstream and 512k to 1.5mb downstream--slower than some DSL flavors, but still several times faster than ISDN.
     Phone companies say DSL will provide more consistent performance than cable modems, which can slow down if all your neighbors try to download Pamela Anderson Lee's movies at the same time. But DSL's performance can also vary depending on your distance from the local phone switching office.
     Some PC manufacturers are pushing DSL--Compaq and Dell Computer recently announced DSL options. But until deployment begins in earnest late this year and early next, this technology is more hype than reality.
* * *
     Some companies want to avoid rewiring the world by beaming Internet access from the sky. Hughes Network Systems' $299 DirecPC is a 21-inch satellite dish that provides sizzling downstream performance but requires a modem and ISP account for upstream data. Its $799 cousin, DirecDuo, also provides direct-broadcast TV reception.
     Then there are the mega-projects. Teledesic, backed by Microsoft's Bill Gates and CellularOne founder Craig McCaw, plans to launch a constellation of 288 satellites by 2002. The company says the $9-billion effort will provide 64mb downstream speeds and up to 2mb upstream.
     These projects promise to bring high-speed access to even the most remote locations. But for now, online users will have to rely on squawking modems and a variety of costlier technologies.
     Determining the best high-speed online option for you involves balancing your bandwidth needs against your budget--while keeping an eye on what's available on your block. It's worth the effort. If going online is a big part of your work-at-home life, nothing can make you more productive than a fast Internet connection.
     Except maybe a baby-sitter.
* * *
     Freelance writer Jim Heid can be reached via e-mail at jamesheid@aol.com.
* * *

     Quick Reference: Fast Online Options at a Glance

     56kbps modem: 40-50kbps
     * Approximate cost: Under $150, plus normal monthly access fees.
     * Pros: Inexpensive, widely available.
     * Cons: Too slow for large file transfers, actual performance varies.
* * *
     Bonded modems: 60-90kbps
     * Approximate cost: ISP surcharge (about $10 more per month), plus second modem and phone line costs.
     * Pros: Uses conventional phone lines and inexpensive modems.
     * Cons: Limited ISP support, modest speed gains, ties up two phone lines.
* * *
     ISDN: 128kbps
     * Approximate cost: Installation and equipment, $300; access, roughly $70 to $100 per month.
     * Pros: Fast, widely available, consistent throughput, provides two additional phone lines.
     * Cons: Initial setup can be tricky, access charges can add up, faster alternatives becoming available.
* * *
     Cable modem: 400kbps and up
     * Approximate cost: Installation, $100 to $170; access, about $50 per month.
     * Pros: Very fast, inexpensive, always on.
     * Cons: Limited availability, potential security holes.
* * *
     Satellite dish: 400kbps and up*
     * Approximate cost: Dish, $299 plus installation; access, $19.95 to $129.95 per month, depending on package.
     * Pros: Very fast downloads, no special phone line required, available throughout U.S.
     * Cons: Modem and ISP account required for sending data, doesn't work with Macintosh.
* * *
     DSL: 384kbps and up
     * Approximate cost: Too soon to say.
     * Pros: Very fast, always on.
     * Cons: Extremely limited availability, unproven.
     *Downloads only
     Source: Times research

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