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PC World

Opinion: Dispelling those bandwidth myths

February 8, 1999
Web posted at: 10:57 a.m. EST (1557 GMT)

by Stephen Manes
The best national and regional ISPs

(IDG) -- Given some of the things we've heard lately about bandwidth, the term might be better dubbed bandmyth. In no other area of the PC industry is there quite as much hype or misinformation. Here are a few of the more dubious concepts about fast Net access:

BANDWIDTH IS FREE: Thanks to advances in fiber optics and chip technology, bandwidth is definitely getting cheaper. But some industry pundits will try to tell you that bandwidth is essentially free. Not likely. At the Association for Computing Machinery's 1997 conference, digital pioneer Gordon Bell warned us to be wary of just such bandwidth claims, noting the unsurprising reality that "you just can't get any of it at that price."

YOU CAN'T GET A FAST CONNECTION: The bitter truth about bandwidth is summed up in the title of an old Jimmy Cliff song: "You Can Get It If You Really Want." Operators are standing by to lease you a T1 line that delivers data at a whopping 1.5 megabits per second -- if you really want it badly enough to cough up more than $1000 a month.

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YOU CAN GET A FAST, AFFORDABLE CONNECTION: Different story. In my Seattle neighborhood, fast Digital Subscriber Line service is available in my phone exchange, but not at my house; I'm too far from the switch. Cable modems? Offered in other parts of town, but not in mine; I'm on a waiting list. If I desperately needed a faster connection, I could probably get ISDN. But it hardly seems worth paying elevated tariffs to both my local phone company and my ISP.

Wireless? Sorry, but the price/performance ratio's too low. Metricom has been promising 128-kbps service for its Ricochet system, but it hasn't arrived, and 128 kbps doesn't seem all that fast anymore anyway. Other wireless data schemes have astronomical costs, glacial speeds, and other complications.

That leaves some variant of T1 -- if I win the lottery.

PEOPLE ARE CLAMORING FOR MORE BANDWIDTH: Those of us who truly need greater Web speed may be the exceptions. When adequate, not-quite-56-kbps service is available at $20 a month, and a sizable fraction of Web surfers find AOL acceptable, getting most customers to fork over twice that price or more for faster Net links could be a hard sell. Sure, downloads will be lots faster, banner ads will pop up quicker, and always-on connections will be a boon. But they won't help you plow through e-mail any faster.

YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR: You probably don't, because you're sharing bandwidth with thousands of users across the Net. The dial-up connection to your ISP is the only place bandwidth isn't pooled; that 45 or 50 kbps is dedicated to you, and nobody can snag a piece of it.

But no law says an ISP has to use a big pipe to connect to the Net, so service providers can save money by using small ones. One way ISPs increase apparent speed is by caching popular pages on local proxy servers. That trade-off of storage for bandwidth may work fine for some; it won't do you much good if you frequent obscure sites or download a lot of software.

In these and many other ways, the effective speed of your connection can be severely compromised. A few weeks ago, I was stunned when a neighbor dropped by and expressed his delight at the speed of my sort-of 56-kbps connection. Turns out he does most of his surfing from a college campus where the communal T1 line is evidently in heavy use. Sharing isn't always a good thing.

FAST CONNECTIONS WILL SOON BE THE NORM: Not on the evidence we've seen so far. When you look at the percentages of people who have high-speed Internet access, cable modems are just barely on the charts and DSL is barely a blip. Blame the combination of high prices and limited availability. As Gordon Bell pointed out, "Network bandwidth becomes available more slowly than anyone can ever predict," alluding to an AT&T vice president's 1981 forecast that "ISDN will be ubiquitous by 1985."

Besides the handful of people who will pay almost any price for faster Net access, what most of us really want is simple: a high-bandwidth connection for slightly more than what we're paying now for dial-up, an easy upgrade path from dial-up systems to faster ones, and widespread availability. In keeping with the wisdom of Gordon Bell, I'm skeptical that any of it will happen in any hurry.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes has been writing about computers and their frustrations for more than 15 years. He is coauthor of Gates, a biography of Microsoft's chairman.

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