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Jewish World Review June 12, 2000 / 9 Sivan, 5760

Jim Bray's TechnoFILE

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Consumer Reports

Phone company reaches out, touches high-speed web access -- CABLE COMPANIES are getting some serious competition for high-speed Internet service.

It comes from some "local phone companies," whose "ADSL" (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) service, while not really new, is now being marketed aggressively in more and more areas.

I use a cable modem, and based on what I do for a living, can no longer live without high-speed, "always on" Internet access. I like the idea of competition, however -- at least until I muscle the other technology writers from the marketplace -- and am happy to see ADSL giving cable a run for your money.

The services work differently, but that isn't really important to the consumer. Both providers also make conflicting claims about their respective performance, so it's best to believe neither.

My local phone company hooked me into their ADSL service so I could run it head to head with cable. Unfortunately, I live at the outer fringe of ADSL reception, so I couldn't really do an "apples to apples" comparison.

When you order ADSL, the phone company mounts a splitter in your home that takes the ADSL signal and directs it to the special phone jack they install near your computer. It also directs the voice frequencies to the rest of your phone jacks.

This is, in a nutshell, how the service gives you "always on" Internet access over the same phone line you use to call Grandma: phone wires are actually capable of carrying far more information than your voice, and they use this extra capacity for the digital stuff.

Your price may vary (as the commercials say), but in my neck of the woods, ADSL and cable Internet services cost the same. Installation and setup are extra, naturally, and prices vary, depending upon the marketing mood of the company.

The drawback to ADSL is that the farther away you are from the "exchange," the more potential there is for a service slowdown. This is because extra distance traveled through the wire means there's more resistance, and after about 3 miles, you might as well just open a good book as use the Internet as a research tool.

This is why, where I live, I could only expect about 60 percent of the 1.6 megabit/second download rate (upload speeds are about a third of that, hence the term "Asynchronous").

And while my initial test downloaded an 11 meg file at speeds that exceeded 80 Kb/sec, subsequent attempts (after the system had been routed through our home network) fluctuated wildly, from as high as 125K/sec to about 28 K/sec. A lot of the performance depends upon Internet use and congestion, and has nothing to do with your service provider, so, while the time it takes to download a file makes a nice rule of thumb, you shouldn't take it to the bank.

There's nothing that can be done about that distance limitation right now. It's apparently inherent with the technology, though they're also working on new systems that could eventually ride to the rescue.

One of these potential solutions is called VDSL (Very high-speed Digital Subscriber Line), and though it's limited to a radius of about a mile, it could reach speeds of up to 50 megabit/second, compared with ADSL's top end of 1.6 m/s.

A spokesman for my phone company said that to get around the 1 mile radius limitation, they'd have to beef up the number of "electronics" centers -- something I wish they'd do right now so fringe ADSL customers like me could reap more of the high-speed benefits. He also said existing ADSL customers will probably be offered some kind of upgrade path that should be relatively transparent to them.

Still, as my first impressions show, ADSL does work well (I noticed no change in my voice phone service quality, either). I wish I could give a fair estimate of its relative speed vs. cable, but my location precludes that.

So, if you don't have cable, or refuse to give the cable company any more of your hard earned, after-tax income than necessary, ADSL service offers an alternative if you live in the right area.

If you don't, and you rue the pound of flesh your cable company extracts monthly, you may have no choice until satellite companies make such a service available as well.

JWR contributor Jim Bray publishes TechnoFILE magazine, "the consumer's non-technical guide to today's technology." You may comment by clicking here.

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© 2000 Jim Bray.