As more and more picture and sound files traverse the ether between computers, many of us in the Northwest "burbs" complain of slow-speed Internet access. The causes for this maddening problem can be any of the following:
Poor data speed/quality on your phone line or other access medium
Overloaded Internet Service Provider (ISP)
Overloaded web site or nodes between your ISP and the web site you wish to reach
Tired or overworked computer
Outdated or defective modem
In this article, I will concentrate on the first and most likely cause of sluggishness - the slow line or other medium between your computer and ISP.
If you are using dial-up, also called Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), you may be a victim of USWest's (now Qwest's) having put modern technology in place to service this fast growing part of the state.
While portions of Casas Adobes, Marana, and some older areas of the Northwest seem to chug away at a decent rate, most of the newer areas cannot get out of second gear with POTS access.
This is because, to reduce the cost of servicing the burgeoning population here, Qwest installed subscriber loop carrier systems. With this technology, many subscribers "share" a common pair of wires or a fiber optic channel. The end result is that a 56 Kbps modem, that will generally reach 40-50 Kbps in the rest of the US, limps along at just about 20-26 Kbps in most of the Northwest towns.
Fortunately, Qwest now offers Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) to much of the region and, while it is not without flaws, it will increase speeds to about 300 Kbps, although Qwest, like most service providers today, will hype much higher speeds.
Marketing excesses aside, one of the advantages of DSL is that it allows you to use your phone line while being on-line with your computer. So, for many, the added cost of DSL can be off-set in part, by canceling that second dedicated computer/fax line.
If you are interested in the DSL offerings, they are listed at www.qwest.com. Speeds, which are generally asymmetrical, range from 256 Kbps to over 1 Mbps, depending on the service plan chosen. Equipment and installation can range from $0 to $350 depending on promotions. Monthly fees vary from $19.95 to $250 for the top of the Professional Class. DSL is bundled with ISP services provided by companies such as MSN, AOL, Gain Communications, the River, or other service provider. Typical rates for home use are $39 to $49 per month.
You can also contact most of the ISPs directly and arrange for high-speed Internet service. If you do it this way, the ISP will subcontract Qwest to "provision" the lines. Compare carefully, because some ISPs will provide the special DSL modem and others will require you to purchase it. Also, depending on promotions, installation fees can vary widely.
On the cable front, Comcast (www.comcast.com/) now provides a cable solution to portions of our area. Unlike earlier cable Internet services, which required an up-stream telephone line, the cable solutions in our area are now bi-directional. That means that, like DSL, many folks can offset some of the cost of high-speed cable Internet by canceling that second telephone line. Current rates are comparable with DSL, $39-49 per month.
For those in Saddlebrooke, Robson provides a similar cable solution. For $60 per month, Robson provides both the cable service and high speed Internet.
A colleague of ours is elated with the service and, when he checked the actual speed, it was 1.3-1.5 Mbps. That is roughly 4X what I am experiencing with DSL. That is almost worth a move to Saddlebrooke.
The downside of a cable modem is that the speed depends on the number of subscribers on the cable. The cable companies often make mention of speeds 50-100 times greater than normal modems, but they talk of maximum speed, and don't guarantee anything. And, like DSL, speeds are asymmetrical.
Yet, most of the cable subscribers I know are getting higher speeds than are being obtained by DSL users. Whether this will change as more customers sign up for cable remains to be seen.
Sprint Broadband Direct (www.sprintbroadband.net) had been a good wireless choice for those who had "line of sight" to their antennas at the base of the eastern-most side of the Tucson Mountains. There are many subscribers in out area, as can be seen by those little square dishes on many of the houses here.
Unfortunately, Sprint is no longer accepting new customers because their system has currently reached saturation. It is not clear if this is a temporary problem or if all the available bandwidth has now been used.
There are also a host of high-speed Internet offerings via satellite, but they tend to be expensive and most offer downstream services only. A phone-line is usually needed for upstream communication to your ISP. In addition, data transmission delays of satellite solutions are about a quarter of a second each way. For sessions that require continuous handshaking (PC telephone, interactive games, etc.) this "ping delay" will quickly offset the advantages of the higher bit rate.
Weather is an issue too. The Ku band, used by most satellite solutions, is vulnerable to precipitation. Monsoonal rain can be expected to slow things down and perhaps stop communication all-together. Nevertheless, they are often the only solutions for the more rural areas of the country.
So, as I see it, if you can no longer deal with the snail-pace of dial-up, consider an upgrade. If your cable company offers high-speed Internet, go for it. If you are within the DSL coverage area of Qwest, that would also be a good choice. However, do not expect the speeds that these companies claim. Somehow, truth in advertising is avoided by using phrases like "speeds up to 50-100 times…"
I should close with a one caveat. Even if the high speed solution you choose does deliver speeds 50 times greater than your current modem, do not be deceived into thinking that you will see that speed in all cases. You might be very happy when downloading files, but accessing your favorite Web site may be disappointing because of the other causes for slow speed - especially due to a slow ISP or bogged-down Web site.
So it is great living here in the Northwest - but we are still being shortchanged with spotty high-speed Internet service, as compared to much wider coverage within the city limits of Tucson. As you can see, all is not always rosy in the "burbs," but we love it here anyway
In addition to writing this column, John Smith offers PC Tutoring under the name of "PC" Smith. He welcomes feedback on these articles, and may be reached on 575-9166 or firstname.lastname@example.org