The vast majority of people access the Internet through a telephone modem. Plug it in, turn on your machine and … wait. And wait. And wait a little more. First, there is the search for the modem, then the connection, then the handshaking. Once you’re online, you wait for the software to load, the right Web page to be found (when surfing), the page to download.
I appreciate a 56-kbps modem as much as the next person — my first modem chugged dutifully along at 2,400 kbps — but it just seems so slow. And it will get even slower as more and more stuff — video, music, data streams — gets shoved on the Net. The faucet on the pipe — and even the pipe itself — just ain’t big enough.
So let’s look at the alternatives. A popular Japanese option is the ISDN line. These serve up data at over twice the speed of a conventional modem (128 kbps), but cost a chunk of change to install and require special hardware. (Actually most of the options do.) Alternatively, you can use one of the gray pay phones that offer it up. Amazing how a country that has lagged in the race to get wired could plant an ISDN pay phone in every corner.
The ISDN line is a step up, but it lags behind ASDL (asymmetric digital subscriber lines), which some folks see as an interim stage in the search for the fat pipe. ASDL transmits data at 256 kbps, but it is expected to reach 400 kbps for home users and 1.5 megabits per second for commercial users. A T1 line, a current favorite of businesses that have a lot of data to move, offers the same speed, but costs considerably more money.
Even ASDL supporters concede that making it widely available is going to be difficult. By one estimate, 40 percent of U.S. homes will be unable to use the technology for technical reasons.
Nowadays, the big money is behind the cable option. Cable connections can deliver data at about 1.5 megabits per second, or about 100 times faster than ISDN lines. Cable lines are always on; just hit a button and away you go.
With millions of people already signed up for cable TV, the last bit that has stymied so many other options — the wires that “run from the curb” — is a nonissue. Kinetic Strategies Inc., a research firm, says 1 million U.S. households are using cable modem services to access the Internet, and the number could reach 1.6 million by year’s end. Forrester Research expects 16 million households to have these high-speed, “broadband” connections by 2002. Eighty percent of them will get their fix through cable; the remaining 20 percent will use xDSL, a competitor developed by telephone companies that uses existing copper lines.
Earlier this month, British cable operator Telewest Communications announced that next year it will offer high-speed Internet service about 100 times faster than current modems. Users will have to rent the modem (at about 25-30 pounds a month), but they won’t pay phone charges and, like other systems, it’s always on.
A little known alternative accesses the Internet through the power grid. Power companies have used this method for their internal communications for years. Now, Canada’s Northern Telecom and Britain’s Norweb, an electricity supplier, are testing a system that would deliver data to the public at 1 megabit per second through ordinary domestic power lines. (So far, only data can be transmitted; the technology isn’t refined enough to permit the use of voice and video.) Singapore Power is interested in the idea. It is working with British Telecom and NTT to develop the system. By piggybacking a low-power radio signal on power lines, Ascom, a Swiss company, says its technology delivers “several megabits per second” from distribution points up to 300 meters away from the user.
Since we live in a wireless age, many people wonder why we need to even bother plugging in. Fact is, we don’t.
With Iridium, the global telephone consortium, declaring bankruptcy last week, the word “satellite” has a distinct smell to it, but several companies are vying to provide links in the sky.
The biggest venture is Teledesic, which is backed by Bill Gates (who has money in just about every one of the options mentioned thus far) and Craig McCaw, former telecoms wizard. Teledesic plans to put 288 birds up in space, at a price of about $9 billion. Teledesic says it will offer 64 megabits per second the minute it’s running in 2003. (That is the downlink. Satellite technology works at two speeds; the uplink is only 2 megabits per second.)
Four other consortiums are working to make the satellite the Net provider of choice. Hughes Electronics’ project, Spaceway, uses 28 satellites and should be in service a year before Teledesic. It says it can move data down at 400 megabits per second, up at 16 megabits. (Needless to say, all these technologies require special hardware and special monthly fees.)
You don’t have to go into space, though. Angel Technologies envisions a squadron of high-altitude jets ever in the air relaying data at 1 megabit per second to users in certain areas. Another group wants to launch a fleet of high-altitude blimps to send data at up to 10 megabits per second.
Slightly more down-to-earth are wireless options available only in certain cities. Warp Drive Network delivers 7.5 megabits per second over the UHF TV spectrum in San Jose Ca., and .5 megabits per second over its network in New York.
Mercury One-2-One, a British cellular company, says it will deliver always-on Net connections at 115 kbps, which should reach 384 kpbs eventually. That isn’t as fast as the other options, but we’re talking hand-held devices. For them, the bottleneck is often the hardware, not the pipe itself.
Finally, there is “fixed wireless,” or high-speed point-to-point communications carried by microwaves. In Seattle, Advanced Radio Telecoms is providing data at 43 megabits per second and is reported to run as high as 100 megabits per second.
Think that’s fast? Lucent Technologies is developing lasers that transmit voice, video and data at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second. I can’t wait for that.