It's far from the biggest, fastest, or newest broadband service, but Cablevision's Optimum Online ISP delivers reliable midrange data speeds and the option of getting VoIP telephone service and TV over the same coaxial cable line. The hardware is free and easy to install, and it delivers more than 3Mbps of broadband for as little as $30 per month--but only in a package with other services. Be ready for the monthly bills to jump to as much as $50 a year later. All told, if you live in the metropolitan New York area, where Optimum Online has 1.5 million data customers, it's a viable alternative to SBC Yahoo DSL, EarthLink DSL, and dial-up connections. But for cable Internet, we think Comcast has a better offering, especially with regards to service and support.
If you already get your cable TV from Cablevision, adding data couldn't be easier. In fact, chances are you've received several phone calls and mailings to entice you to do exactly that. After you sign up, the company sends out a starter kit that includes cables, a Motorola SB5100 or Scientific Atlanta 2100 modem, a quick-start manual, a printed reference guide, and a start-up CD. We like that the quick-start card is all most people will need to get online in about 10 minutes. The modem supports a single USB or Ethernet connection for distributing data throughout a home or a small office with a wired or wireless router.
Unlike some competitors, Optimum Online offers no free first month, but it does have a 30-day money-back guarantee for new customers, and it doesn't saddle you with a long-term contract, cancellation fees, or penalties. Just cancel the service and return the equipment, and your monthly bills will come to an end. The basic data service goes for $49.95 per month, although you can get it for as little as $29.95 per month if you get Optimum Online's Now package, which adds VoIP telephone and digital-cable TV programming for $60 more ($30 for each service). This is pricey compared to competitors' plans, which provide similar, though often slower, service for as little as $15 per month.
If you don't currently use Cablevision for TV programming, you'll need to have cable pulled to your home. For most locations, this is free, but in some places it can cost as much as $150. Optimum Online provides a payoff for ordering via its Web site and installing the service yourself: the company usually offers a sign-up gift, such as a Web camera, a Wi-Fi router, or an MP3 player. It all depends on when you sign up. Optimum Online stocks its home page with content that includes news clips, movie trailers, and music videos.
Optimum Online includes five separate e-mail accounts of up to 20MB each, which should be plenty for most families or small businesses; however, some competitors provide nine accounts with their broadband service, as well as a personal Web page. Also, since Optimum Online doesn't include a dial-up account, it's not the service for people who travel. The company's Traveler service will sell you blocks of dial-up minutes that are good for a year. While Optimum Online works well with instant-messaging services, it has mixed success blocking spyware, pop-ups, and spam at the server level. Optimum Online recently added The Digiticians' PCCare maintenance software to its extensive array of free downloads.
Those used to dialing up for every connection will find Optimum Online liberating. The always-on data service uses DOCSIS 2.0-based connections and dynamically assigns an IP address to each. We've used the service for five years, and over the course of two weeks monitored its speed using CNET's Bandwidth Meter. We found Optimum Online's performance dependable, sometimes topping out at over 5Mbps, but reliably delivering an average download speed of about 3.3Mbps--more than enough for most Web work or for sharing a connection among family members. Still, it's far from the fastest service available. For those in the habit of transferring large files over a VPN connection, bear in mind that Optimum Online's upload speed is only between 600Kbps and 900Kbps, as measured by Speakeasy's online bandwidth gauge.
Although Optimum Online offers free support, its online and phone offerings are tolerable at best. E-mail replies arrive late, and you can wait on the phone 20 minutes before talking to a technician. The well-stocked support site offers technology tutorials, e-mail setup tools, plenty of downloads, and a way to check on the connection's status. However, the Answer Center mixes helpful, up-to-date information with canned answers that were irrelevant to our situation. Unfortunately, rather than using a centralized toll-free number, you have to call your local cable office for help. The support lines are staffed 24 hours a day, but the call is not toll-free. The generally knowledgeable support staff promises to respond to e-mail messages within 24 hours, but it missed the mark on several occasions. Many of the replies merely told us to call the support line. On the other hand, Optimum Online's installation-and-repair technicians are resourceful and well trained.