ADSL for gamers
(IDG) -- I'm spoiled. I admit it. Working and playing on a T1 line will do that to you. No matter how much you want to sit at home and experience what the rest of the world calls a fast modem connection, you can't hack it. Would you trade in Neve Campbell for Joan Collins? I don't think so. So after two years of suffering, I gave in and decided to get a fast connection for the domicile.
But which to get? T1? No way. I'd rather spend those thousands of dollars on a new car or a down payment on a house. ISDN? Possible, but those per-minute charges suck and installation costs are still high. Cable modem? Now we're talking, but TCI.net ain't coming to my hood for at least another eight months. That left one other option-one that, surprisingly, had just become available in my metropolis-asymmetric digital subscriber lines (ADSL).
Whoa, what's that acronym?
ADSL is a high-speed Internet connection in which you have two specialized modems on either side of a copper telephone line. Unlike normal modems, this is a true digital line-meaning there's no conversion from digital to analog signal and back. The asymmetric connection is pretty fast- "asymmetric" means you can have different speeds for uploads and downloads, although some ISPs like Concentric offer symmetric lines that provide an average speed for uploads and downloads.
Theoretically, an ADSL line can download up to 8MBs per second, and upload 800Kbps per second, but actual ADSL service limits are much less. In California, Pacific Bell offers three connection plans that are typical of ADSL service: Entry Level (128Kbps upload and 384Kbps download), Really Fast (384Kbps in both directions), and Hurt Me (384Kbps upload and 1.5MBps download). One more neat feature: ADSL can run on one phone line, handling voice calls simultaneously with the digital connection, with no interference or loss of speed during a call. You don't have to rewire or add another line for ADSL.
What you need for speed
Everything from a 486 on up is all the computer you'll need. If you've got at least Windows 95 and 16MB of RAM, you've got the basics. What the phone company will install for ADSL is a specialized modem, an Ethernet card, and a new phone jack that can handle the ADSL signal. Although you can easily get the ethernet card on your own, buying an ADSL modem at CompUSA isn't a likely option, nor is any inside wiring that may need to be done. So for these, you're pretty much at the mercy of your ADSL provider and the requirements of their technology.
Where's the catch?
As far as service fees are concerned, I didn't experience any hidden demons in opting for an ADSL connection. The biggest challenge is understanding that you're dealing with a brand new animal, and that no one is quite sure what they're doing. In California, you have to deal with Pac Bell-it's their phone lines, after all. Even if you obtain your ADSL service through Concentric or another Internet provider, they still have to play ball with the local telco. That means your telco costs are hidden within your monthly fees, whether you realize it or not. Here's a breakdown of some of the ADSL connection options that were available to me:
ADSL Service Rates
ADSL installation fees
There's always a catch, and with ADSL it shows up in installation and hardware fees. $125 is about average for installation, and $400 and up is common to cover the cost of the ADSL modem and Ethernet card required. But if you check around and ask questions, there are deals you can cut to lower these fees. With Pacific Bell, if you agree to use PacBell Internet as your ADSL Internet service provider, you can delete half your hardware bill. Slip.net takes another approach, zapping the installation fee if you sign up for a year. You can also save some cash if you provide and install your own ethernet card. Here's the lowdown:
Taking the plunge
Reviewing the competitors, Pac Bell looked to be the most aggressive player in the price wars. I did learn of a test program that AOL is running that offers really cheap rates, but those rates aren't posted, and AOL requires you to apply for consideration-with no guarantees you'll be accepted.
That left me with Pac Bell. Their rates were lower, and the installation fee could be spread out over four months on my telephone bill. Since you can't get ADSL service from the Baby Bell without taking Pac Bell Internet, I signed up for a year to cut down on the hardware bill. Since I placed my service order within days of ADSL service becoming available in San Francisco, I was able to get an installation date within two weeks. Once the news got out, that lead time grew to a month.
On the appointed day, I was visited by a Pac Bell representative and a gentleman from Prime Services Group, the contractor that does installations for Pac Bell. Much like putting in a new phone line, these guys checked all the relevant junction boxes and then moved inside the house to the game computer lair. The added an ADSL phone jack, checked my PC to make sure the Ethernet card was correctly installed, and then plugged an external Alcatel 1000 ADSL modem into the line and the computer. The proper TCP/IP addresses were entered, the system rebooted, and presto! I had ADSL. Total installation time: about one hour.
Life with ADSL
Considering that I was one of the first kids in the neighborhood to get ADSL, it's been fairly trouble-free. That's a good thing, since for now I'm pretty much on my own where customer service is concerned. This will probably change before long, but currently if you call up Pac Bell Internet, they've got no clue how to answer an ADSL tech support question. The system status does have an accurate and up-to-date ADSL area, but the phone number listed is the same tech support number manned by the same sympathetic yet clueless folks mentioned above.
ADSL is an always-on, static-IP connection, and most of the time it is always on. However, there is some line weirdness that no one I can contacted can explain. On the Alcatel modem, there's a sync diode that turns red when the connection is lost. It doesn't happen very often, but every once in a while when you get a disconnect icon in a Quake II deathmatch and look at the modem, that red light is flashing. For some reason, Saturdays around 2 p.m. tend to be a bad time. Most of the outages have been less than 5 minutes in duration, but one took as long as 20 minutes to resolve itself.
Then there are times when I suspect there is some computer-induced TCP/IP strange stuff that causes the modem to hang. All the status diodes on the Alcatel are green, but no data is pumping through to the computer. Switching the modem off and on sends the Alcatel into its connection phase, and when the red light does its "I'm almost done with this junk and I'm about to turn green" flashing cycle, I try loading a new Web page. Usually everything is fine with the connection after this process.
The good stuff
Okay, the important stuff you've been waiting for-ping times. Where home connections are concerned, ADSL is the promised land if you can't get a cable modem. Check out the accompanying graph; the Quake II pings are exceptional.
Quake II Average Pings
As for downloads, ADSL performs as billed-steady all the way. While ADSL won't deliver the triple-digit download speeds of a T1 or cable modem, since I've had my ADSL line I always get close to 40k per second.
As a reasonably priced alternative to cable modems, entry-level ADSL service can be a great alternative. True, @Home service is approximately $50 per month, which includes Internet access. And the installation fees, at between $99 and $175, are less than those for ADSL service. But if you've been hung out to dry by the cable provider in your city, then ADSL is your best option. Given free-market forces and an expanding installed base, ADSL service costs should come down in the next year as the telcos start competing in earnest with cable providers. That should make faster ADSL connection speeds more affordable in the future.
For now, I'll happily pay that extra money for low pings in the comfort of my own home.
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