DSL vs. cable for high-speed Internet access

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com

See the updated comments at the end (Jan. 2001), RealAudio version of that update

This article is based on my personal observations and what I learned at my weekly chat program "Business on the World Wide Web", on September 16, 1999. Thanks in particular to Michael Katz from MediaOne, and Amanda Berlied and Anthony Alvarez from Acunet, who were the invited guests for that program. The complete transcript is available at www.samizdat.com/chat110.html For details about the chat program, the upcoming schedule, and earlier transcripts see www.samizdat.com/chat.html At the end of this article, you'll see my reassessment of this issue after over a year of DSL service, and my recent switch to cable.

This article was heard on the radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth, Mass.

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Today's choice of high-speed access for the home or very small business sounds like a technology question -- DSL or cable? But it's really a question of quality of service: you are choosing a company to do business with, not just another flavor of modem.

In the past, most people depended on dial-up access -- the other choices: ISDN or a dedicated T1 line were mainly intended for businesses, and only the rich and technically astute would have made that choice for the home.

Now, depending on where you live, you may have a choice of cable access (from your cable TV provider) or digital subscriber line (DSL) which delivers high speed Internet signals over standard copper telephone lines

Both approaches offer the benefits of constant connection. Instead of having to dial up every time you need to use the Internet, you are on 24 hours a day. When you no longer have to face dial up delays, you may start using the Internet more frequently, or differently -- whenever you need a piece of information quickly. Except in case of catastrophe, you also avoid typical random dial up frustrations -- not being able to connect at all at the very moment when you absolutely need to get online. And you don't face the prospect of randomly losing your connection in the middle of a chat or an auction or at the moment of sending an important email.

If you already have a second phone line, upgrading to cable or DSL may cost you very little or even save you money. When you are connected by DSL, you can carry on ordinary phone conversations at the same time as working on the Internet, over the same phone line. Likewise, if your cable company is set up to handle both downstream (from the Internet to your house) and upstream traffic (from your house to the Internet) over cable, then you won't need a second phone line anymore. But be sure to ask about this when shopping for cable access, because some providers use a setup that requires a telephone line for the upstream traffic.

Both cable and DSL are likely to provide you with downstream speeds much faster than a 56K dialup modem. Just how fast depends on the setup that the provider has established. In the case of cable, it also depends on how many other people in your neighborhood are using this service and what they are doing with it. In the case of DSL, it depends on whether you get business service (with a dedicated line and a guaranteed bandwidth) or residential (in which case what you actually get for speed may vary widely and may be no where near the advertised maximum).

Cable today is capable of 10 megabits per second, but most providers offer a lower speed, balancing to provide optimum service to an optimum number of people. For example, Media One today offers 1.5 Mbits downstream and 300 K upstream.

DSL is typically slower, depending once again on the setup established by the provider. For example, Acunet today offers 684K downstream and 90K upstream for residential -- that's the maximum, not guaranteed. Actual performance depends on numerous factors, including the quality of the old copper wires in place in your neighborhood and the volume of traffic. Their business service is 144K both down and up, guaranteed; and apparently, in most cases that is faster than the residential service.

With cable, your bandwidth is shared with other users in your neighborhood. If your cable provider has built a robust infrastructure and has equipment and policies in place to quickly cope with fluctuations in demand, then your service may be uniformly fast. MediaOne claims that that is the case with their service. But some cable providers, particularly ones with less experience in the Internet business or ones that are trying to minimize costs, may deliver wildly fluctuating speeds, depending on the time of day, and changing as more people sign up, with the worst case being prime-time speeds that are as slow as dialup.

The shared line for cable can also raise concerns about the security of the information on your PC. If the service is not set up with proper safeguards, it is possible for other people in your neighborhood to use the cable line to access your machine. Once again, the important factor is the experience and professionalism of the provider. Established providers, like MediaOne, reportedly have routine procedures in place to provide the necessary protection.

Costs also vary widely from one provider to another. But typically, DSL costs more, especially for startup. In most cases, cable customers are already customers of the cable company. They have a cable connection to their home, and this is just an add-on service, which the provider can make very attractive with a variety of special deals, bundled in with their TV service. They may provide the cable modem the same way they provide the standard cable box, as a rental that is invisibly buried in your monthly bill. DSL uses your existing phone line, but typically requires an activation fee of about $100 (someone has to come to your home to set it up) and purchase of a DSL modem for about $100. Once set up, typical monthly fees run $49 (MediaOne) for cable and $79 (Acunet) for residential DSL.

Cable and DSL also differ in terms of their target markets. Cable, based as it is on home cable TV, aims at the home market. That is the kind of customer they are used to dealing with. Business customers tend to be more demanding, because more is at stake; and it would be expensive for a cable company to gear up to meet business-style support standards. DSL is typically available to both business and home, typically with business service costing more.

Cable companies come to the Internet from an entirely different business -- home entertainment. There is a long learning curve as they hire and train people to install and support the new service and to provide quick and effective answers to the questions of typical users. Some of these companies have been delivering Internet over cable for two to three years, and are now very experienced and effective. Others are just making the change now, and their first customers are likely to suffer.

DSL providers are typically established ISPs that are expanding their existing service in partnership with telephone companies. On the one hand, they are relatively new to DSL; but on the other hand, they are likely to be experts in the Internet, and well staffed to handle support issues and typical customer questions.

Geography is the main factor, but that's probably beyond your control. Cable is only offered in certain communities and then, typically, only by the cable TV provider who has a monopoly in that geographic area. If your cable company doesn't offer it, then you are out of luck -- unless you want to move. While some Boston suburbs have had cable Internet access for 2-3 years, most of Boston itself still does not have this service. That's the case for me. Living in the West Roxbury section of Boston, I have no choice but DSL today.

Meanwhile, ISPs are rolling out DSL service to one town after another, rather like they added POPs for dialup service several years ago. Once again you have to be in an area that has this service to get it, but the rollout is determined by demand and competition, and is happening very quickly, from multiple providers.

Typically, both cable and DSL providers have quick-look-up applications at their Web sites so you can see if they service your area yet or plan to get there soon.

As for me, because I live in Boston, I don't really have a choice today. But even if I had a choice, I'd probably lean toward business-service DSL, in large part because of the guaranteed bandwidth. I expect that over the next one to two years as high-speed access becomes common place, Web sites and applications that take full advantage of that new higher bandwidth will multiply and flourish. Even if the number of users sharing the line remains constant, the volume of data that they will be pulling into their homes is likely to go up many fold, and the time they spend on line is also likely to increase. That means that service based on shared bandwidth is likely to degrade. It might feel good today, but it could slow intolerably within a year or two.

In any case, I finally made the leap -- I've signed up for DSL with Acunet. After I've had some first-hand experience with it, maybe I'll have some more to say.

DSL vs. cable revisited -- Jan. 2001, (RealAudio version of the following)

The DSL vs. cable decision is complicated because of major differences in the technical setup and the business terms from one provider to another. Also, keep in mind that both kinds of service are not available everywhere. The local Baby Bell phone company has to be set up to support DSL, even if you buy the service from another company. And in most areas, the local cable system has a monopoly, and if yours doesn't offer Internet access, you are out of luck. In the US, many people still cannot get either either DSL or cable. And if you are fortunate enough to live somewhere where you have a choice, DSL might be best for you if you live in one area, and cable might win if you live somewhere else..

In my own experience (just over a year of DSL with Acunet), DSL turned out to be no where near as simple and reliable as I had thought. First, it took over two months to get the service installed, with service people from the phone company, Harvard Net, and Acunet all having to come to the house. Then, over the course of the next year, the service crashed about half a dozen times, with resulting confusion about which of those three companies was responsible, and with chain-of-command delays in addressing the problemsAnd twice changes made in routers or servers downstream (not under the control of Acunet, Harvard Net, or the phone company) disrupted my ability to connect to important Web sites that used encryption (such as my bank). The first time that problem lasted for over a month before Acunet's support folks were able to diagnose the problem and do something about it. (That took considerable creativity and persistence on their part. In the meantime, I could connect to most of the Web, but not to half a dozen sites which were very important to me.)

Finally, in December 2000, I was informed by Acunet that Harvard Net was going out of the DSL business, and hence, Acunet would no longer offer DSL. I had just six weeks to find another Internet access provider.

Fortunately, Cable Vision of Boston had recently upgraded to digital service in my neighborhood of Boston (West Roxbury), and was offering high-speed Internet access with free installation and for just $19.95/month (for the first six months, and $39.95 thereafter). This compared quite favorably to the $79.95 I was paying Acunet, but I wouldn't have made the switch (with all the hassle and uncertainty) if I hadn't been forced to leave Acunet.

Much to my surprise, Cable Vision was able to do the installation within three days of when I made the call. The service is fast, and seems to be reliable, and service people appear to be available to answer questions by phone and online at most times.

The one major drawback so far has related to connecting more than one PC to the service.

When I had DSL with Acunet, I had five static IP addresses and hence could easily connect up to four PCs through a hub and simultaneously connect to the Internet through all of them. Sometimes I'd have just two computers connected (desktop and laptop). And when my son Mike came home from college, it was a simple matter to connect his PC. And when my other kids, Bob and Heather, came home; or when business associates visited, I could hook them up with no hassle and no expense.

With cable-modem service through Cable Vision, I have dynamic IP addressing, which makes it difficult or expensive to connect multiple computers.

Apparently, the level of difficulty and expense depends very much on the specific set up of the particular cable company. I have heard that the setup is very easy with Media One, which services the Boston-area suburbs. In that case, you need to buy a router (for about $200), and can then set up so the router takes care of the addressing problems and also provides firewall-like protection from intruders.

With Cable Vision of Boston (which outsources much of its Internet service to home.excite.com), you must either set up one of your computers as a server (a rather complex task, if you are not technically knowledgeable) or you must pay a monthly fee of about $7 to get additional addresses for each of your additional PCs, and then you can use a hub to connect all your PCs to the Internet. Since that approach does not provide any protection from intruders, you also then need to buy/install some kind of personal firewall. (DSL, apparently, does not have the same risks with respect to intrusion).

As I called around, checking the alternatives, I was surprised to find that both Cable Vision and Verizon (the new name of our regional phone company, and a DSL provider) refused to provide any help with regard to home networking. They both indicated that it was possible to connect more than one computer to their service, but wouldn't say how, and wouldn't provide support, and wouldn't even recommend local people who could help with such an installation. Fortunately, the online help at home.excite.com did step me through the process of signing up for additional IP addresses, and that was all I needed to know for that particular setup. But the language of that "help" was worded to discourage the average home user from trying it. And they definitely don't want business customers.

There were a few other unexpected limitations involved in getting this particular cable-modem service. Every computer you are going to connect has to be a Pentium 233 MHz or above, with 32 megs or more or RAM. And installation involves installing Microsoft's IE browser (120 megs) in an annoying version branded by home.excite.com

On the plus side, Cable Vision's implementation does not require the use of a phone line (as some cable-modem services do).

When I called, Verizon offered their "infospeed DSL" service for $39.95 for 64 kbit/90 kbit (down and up speeds) -- which didn't sound much better than connecting by 56 kbit modem. If you wanted decent speed (1.6 mbit/90 kbit), the service cost a very pricey $99.95/month. Like Cable Vision, they use dynamic IP addressing, which makes it complicated to connect more than one PC. They indicated that could be done by setting up a local area network, with one of your PCs serving as a proxy server (a complicated process for which they would provide no help). Also, every computer to be connected to the service had to be a Pentium 166 MHz or above. They promised installation within 15 business days.

I also checked flashcom.com for DSL, because they have been advertising heavily in our area. But they quoted 6-8 weeks for installation.

So now I'm with Cable Vision of Boston. The connection is noticeably faster than DSL (but no big deal). And I'm going to have to pay about $7 extra per month for each computer that I add (and I no longer have the flexibility I had with DSL of adding a computer or two when one of my kids or a business associate is visiting). And I need a firewall as well. But overall, I'm quite pleased with the new service, and feel that I am quite fortunate to be in an area where cable Internet service is available.

(Perhaps I spoke too soon. This morning, Jan. 2, 2001, a major server went down, shutting off cable access in the northeastern US for hours.)

For details about the weekly chat program, edited transcripts  of past sessions, and the schedule of upcoming topics see www.samizdat.com/chat.html. Our chat site is http://www.web-net.org

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