In the mists of the old millennium,
just as Microsoft began providing weekly bandwidth-busting Windows updates, I jumped onto the only local broadband option available to me. The beauty of the regional monopoly in the olden days was that I didn't have to think twice about which service to get. Where I live, it was Comcast or nothing.
But gradually, over the years, my neighborhood morphed into a geographic anomaly served by two
cable providers and one DSL service. Broadband competition beckoned, and I fell into the game, grateful to be able to speedily update Windows every single time a new security flaw reared its head.
Unlike most mainstream Web surfers, I'm stretching my access bandwidth to the limit.
I know that my neighborhood isn't the only area where you have a choice in broadband providers. Like me, I'm sure you're faced with a constant barrage of mailers from the competition, outlining the many reasons why you should switch providers. It's all the same Internet, with no dial-up modem nuisance or busy signals, so how do high-speed access providers differentiate? Where I live, it's all about money and speed. You can't argue with paying less, and if the quality is indistinguishable, the cheaper alternative is the obvious choice. But speed, ah, there's the rub. Most customers never tap the potential of even the slower DSL, but they still quote the inane catchphrase from Top Gun
whenever the subject of speed comes up.
Dollars and megabits
So what are the prices and speeds, you ask? Here's the breakdown: Verizon DSL is the price leader at about $35 per month (after you factor in various fees, taxes, and mysterious charges). Verizon also throws in MSN Premium
for people who like their Internet Microsoft-branded. I don't care for it myself, so I don't use the MSN bit, but I like the price.
Comcast can't compete on price, so it puts up huge roadside banner ads with bar charts showing how much faster its cable service is. Its lead-footed 3Mbps download rate beats out the doddering 1.5Mbps of Verizon's DSL service. Comcast's pricing is a bit harder to figure out--with its bundled cable TV and Internet service--but I'd estimate the Internet portion of it runs about $45 per month. (There's no Internet à la carte option.)
RCN, the third player in my area, appeals to the one-bill-to-pay crowd but makes price comparisons ever more difficult with its bundling of phone, cable TV, and Internet services. Basic cable, phone, and 3Mbps Internet access will run you $92 per month, with no unbundled Internet access option. The monthly Internet portion of the bundle costs more or less $40.
At a glance, the choices are clear. Speed fiends go with the cable service in their neighborhood, and penny-pinchers save a few bucks each month with DSL. But of course, choices are never clear, because at-a-glance views never tell the whole story.
Any download figure a broadband vendor quotes you is prefaced with "up to." There's a good reason for that. Cable Internet is a shared medium, so the more people in your neighborhood who download the 250MB-plus Windows XP service pack, the slower the downloads become. If a dozen kids (or adults) are playing Everquest at the same time, the connections get even slower.
DSL doesn't have the same issues, but it's extremely distance sensitive--the further you are from the nearest switch, the slower your connection will be all the time.
I don't know about you, but when too many variables are in play, I find myself turning back to the old standby: price. That's why I'm currently a DSL subscriber, but my wandering eyes keep checking the competition.
In the near future, Verizon will offer a premium DSL service with data rates comparable to those of cable.
Unlike most mainstream Web surfers who send the occasional e-mail, hunt for cheap airfares, and check up on the news, I'm stretching my access bandwidth to the limit. With my wireless network, I currently have four PCs at home sharing a single DSL connection. We all have up-to-date virus signatures and Windows patches, and some of us watch videos and play online games, too. And Everquest is a constant lure to some who sit at those PCs. So a bit of extra bandwidth would be welcome--and it's on the horizon.
On the Verizon
Verizon is dangling a new service over the heads of all its DSL customers. In the near future, it will offer a premium DSL service with data rates comparable to those of cable: 3Mbps downloads and 768Kbps uploads. That's really zippy compared to standard DSL's 1.5Mbps downstream and 128Kbps upstream speeds. At press time, Verizon is being a little tight-lipped about how its new online offering will take shape. It will certainly come at a premium over basic DSL. Just as certainly, it will not be available to everyone currently in Verizon's DSL catchment areas.
Regular-speed DSL service is available roughly 18,000 feet from a switching station; double-speed DSL is limited to 10,000 feet. Of course, even if you know where your local switching station is, unless you have a tape measure and a scaled schematic of your telco's neighborhood circuit, you still won't know if you're close enough for high-speed service.
But Verizon's not really expecting everyone to want that much speed--or at least, that everyone will want to pay extra to get it. According to the spokespeople I chatted with, Verizon believes that its 1.5Mbps will remain the standard. Only gamer types, online video junkies, people who download massive files, and people like me with four demanding machines networked to share the same Internet connection will queue up for the extra speed.
Verizon's upcoming premium service intrigues me, as does the added premium I'll see on my monthly bill. If it's in the same price range as cable Internet access (or even a bit more expensive), it will knock cable into a cocked hat. Why? Because the company lets you share your connection with all the computers in your house. Cable operators have long forbidden this in their service agreements and have refused to provide tech support to router users, which places everyone who does that--and of course, everyone does--in danger of disconnection.
So bring it on, Verizon. And please, can you shorten the cable from the switching station to my place? I need all the Mbps I can get.
Feel the need for speedy retribution on this columnist? Contact Matt Lake
, but mind the large attachments until he's upgraded to 3Mbps.