If you're reading about high speed internet access right now it's probably because you're switching from dial-up. If not, maybe you've never used the internet before, in which case let me say congratulations from coming out of your coma. Many things have happened while you were gone. The United States has its first black president, Michael Jackson has died, and the Rolling Stones are still touring. Yes, it's true. Or maybe you're unhappy with your current service and want to learn about the alternatives. Whatever the reason, here is what you need to know about high speed internet access.
DSL or Cable
The two most common ways of accessing high speed internet are through DSL modems and cable modems. Many internet service providers (ISP) will only offer either DSL or cable, rather than both. DSL tends to be offered by phone companies and cable tends to be offered by those same companies that provided cable for your television. Choosing which one to get depends on your situation, if you in fact have a choice where you live.
Speed: Cable has the edge when it comes to connection speed. DSL can connect at speeds anywhere from 768 kbps to 7 Mbps. Cable can connect at speeds from 4 Mbps to 30 Mbps. More commonly, a good cable connection tops out between 12 and 16 Mbps, despite the capability for 30 Mbps. This is because a number of factors prevent your cable modem from utilizing the highest speeds. For one thing, the connection will slow down due to bandwidth traffic. If too many people in your area are using the internet at the same time or too many people in the world are accessing the same website as you, your connection will slow down. Also, your friendly DSL and cable ISP probably has a bad habit of implementing “speed caps.” A speed cap is an artificial limit placed on your account that limits the amount of bandwidth you can use. A speed cap can turn a modem capable of 30 Mbps into a 3 Mbps connection.
Why would your ISP cap your speed? Because they're sadists, of course. Okay, that's not true. Basically, what it comes down to is that bandwidth is not unlimited. The ISP has a limited amount it can use and the more they give to each customer, the fewer customers they can have. However, they cannot give everyone a terrible speed or they risk sending their customers to a different ISP. So it is a fine line. Having a speed cap allows the ISP to accommodate more customers and in truth, a lot of customers do not need the maximum speed anyway. At least, that is what the ISP believes. Some providers charge a higher or lower rate depending on the amount of bandwidth you use. They offer a more expensive package if a customer wants a super fast connection (like Road Runner Turbo, for example). To do this, they simply raise the cap for that customer while the rest use the lower speed.
Security: In this age, everyone is concerned with security. People shred their credit card bills, password-protect their computers and have expensive burglar alarms in their houses. Cyber security is just as important, due to the sensitive nature of a lot of the information sent out over the web. DSL has a better reputation for security. This is because anyone with a cable connection shares a cable line with the rest of their neighborhood, basically making their neighborhood one big network. So in theory, anyone in your neighborhood with a cable internet connection can log onto your computer, look at your files and download history and obtain private information. This threat is neutralized, however, by security measures put in place by the cable companies and internet service providers in the form of firewalls and Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS). DOCSIS has several measures that support network security, including packet filtering and authentication software. DSL, unlike cable, uses dedicated cabling and therefore, does not have everyone in the same neighborhood sharing the line. Anyone who goes on the internet, though, can be attacked online by viruses and hackers, so a good security software program is necessary anyway. For that reason, there is little difference between DSL and cable in terms of security.
Popularity: In the United States, cable modems are much more popular, though in recent years DSL usage has increased. In the rest of the world, DSL is more popular. So if you're one of those Americans who reject the metric system out of spite, then you probably want to go with cable.
Customer Satisfaction: DSL has the advantage here. Though there are way more people using cable than DSL in America, that doesn't mean it is better liked. In fact, a higher percentage of cable users are unhappy with their service than that of DSL. If you have cable TV and hate that cable service, your experience with a cable internet connection will probably not be any better. Each year, J.D. Power and Associates surveys DSL and cable customers, asking about a variety of factors, including billing, customer service, the price, reliability and more. In each category, DSL customers gave better ratings than those of cable. So in America, the cable vs. DSL debate is a lot like the Macintosh vs. Microsoft debate. Way more people have PCs and cable, but the people who have Macs and DSL are much happier with their product. So if you hate Mac snobs then you might want to go with cable out of spite.
Distance Sensitivity: Each ISP has a hub from where your internet signal comes. For cable customers, distance from that hub does not affect the strength of your signal. It is just as strong from a long distance as from right next to the hub. For DSL, however, connection speeds drop the farther you get from the hub. DSL can only offer internet service within 18,000 feet from their hub and the connection speeds fall quite a bit after 9,000 feet, so you can only get the highest speeds from your DSL modem if you are close to a DSL hub. For this reason, when making a decision between DSL and cable, you should determine how far away the DSL hubs are from you. If you are not close, you will not be able to get a top-speed signal and if you are too far away, DSL will not be available at all.
Price: I knew you were waiting for me to get to this section. Each ISP sets their own price and have different rates depending on what you want, but generally speaking, DSL is cheaper. DSL ranges from approximately $20 to $40 per month, while cable ranges from approximately $40 to $55 per month.
In some areas, especially extremely rural areas, you may not have access to either DSL or cable. In such a case, you may not have a choice other than satellite internet service. Satellite internet services are more expensive than DSL and cable and is not as fast, though a fast satellite connection will be comparable to DSL. There is also a problem with a high latency rate. The data is relayed between your home computer and a satellite in geostationary orbit. Due to the fact that the data has to travel back and forth between Earth and outer space, there is a longer lag time, which would be annoying for some real-time applications like video games. If you use a satellite internet service, there is also the chance that aliens will intercept your signal and monitor your web-surfing habits. Of course, that's only a problem if you a) believe in aliens and b) are worried about them knowing your web-surfing habits.
Not long ago, the idea of talking on a phone that is not connected to the wall seemed crazy, but this is the wireless age, where people commonly take their laptop computers to their favorite coffee shop and sip on some java while uploading their new blog to Thoughts.com. Most laptops now come with a built-in wireless adapter. If not, you can buy a wireless card and use it to connect to wireless internet, also called Wi-Fi. You can also use wireless internet for your desktop computer if it bothers you having a bunch of wires lying around. Also, if you have a large family or roommates living under the same roof, it may be beneficial to create your own in-home network and have everyone in the house share the wireless connection.
There are some new players in the internet access game. Some of the DSL providers are starting to offer fiber optics, which is faster than DSL. Fiber optic connections start at approximately 15 Mbps and get faster depending on how much you pay for the service. In time, it is likely that fiber optics will replace DSL and we will be having a fiber optics vs. cable discussion.
Another service, called WiMax, is currently in development and is being pushed by several major companies. WiMax is an internet service that can be used by a desktop computer, laptop of cellular phone. So in the near future we may be having a fiber optics vs. cable vs. WiMax discussion. Until the next new thing comes out, that is.