Opinion: What life with a cable modem is really like
April 30, 1999
by Steve Bass
(IDG) -- A few months ago I had a chance to actually measure a nanosecond. It's exactly how long it took me to decide to get a cable modem. Finally, I thought, I can rip out my old modem, tell Pac Bell to take a flying leap (and grab its ISDN line on the way out), and start accessing the Internet the way God and Bill Gates intended.
That was back in January 1998, when Charter Communications promised to install cable modem access in my home town of Altadena, California. Ten months later, Charter delivered. (Hey, for a cable company, that's timely service.)
Now, after six months of use, I can say cable was worth the wait. At least, that's what I tell myself on the good days.
Pain and cable
Cable modem access is awesome for lots of reasons. First, I'm always online, an exalted position for an Internet junkie. Having cable modem access is like having a long extension cord connected to the ISP. Unlike with a regular modem, you don't need a phone line, so you never have to dial up or hear busy signals. My e-mail program checks for messages every minute, and I respond instantly, impressing the dickens out of my editor.
Cable is also incredibly fast--when it works the way it's supposed to (more on that in a sec). In Altadena, data blasts its way in at 256 kilobits per second, twice my old ISDN's 128-kbps speed. With a cable modem, I can download a 5MB file in less than 3 minutes and clutter my entire drive in an evening. (Unfortunately, upload speed is relatively poky at 56 kbps.)
But whether you can actually get the service is hit and miss (mostly miss), and pricing and performance vary widely among the dozens of cable companies that offer Net access. In Pasadena, for instance, about $50 per month buys me Charter's 256-kbps/56-kbps cable hookup and EarthLink's Internet service. Around $75 gets me 512 kbps down and 128 kbps up. Yet for only $50, a cable company across town provides a much faster connection--1.5 mbps for receiving and 300 kbps for sending. (I tried to talk Judy into moving, and she told me what I could do with the cable.)
Installation cost $169, but I didn't have to do a thing. Two technicians laid cable under the house, stuck a network card in my PC, and configured the system. Finally, they hooked up my computer to an external modem.
What ticks me off about cable modem access, though, is that the connection can become sluggish--sometimes for a day or more at a time--for no apparent reason. I'll often get download speeds 30 percent lower than advertised; other users in my area have suffered even slower transmission rates. On bad days, even connecting to a fast server at 2 in the morning makes no real difference. And from reading messages in the comp.dcom.modems.cable newsgroup, I'd wager that's a universal gripe.
EarthLink claims the problem is Net congestion. My take? With cable access, you're sharing bandwidth with dozens, maybe hundreds, of your neighbors. If too many of them download files at the same time, traffic slows to a crawl for everybody.
And bandwidth isn't all that you're sharing. Like it or not, when you use cable, you're on a local area network. I encountered four strangers when I opened my Network Neighborhood. They couldn't do any harm--I had "File and Print Sharing" unchecked in my Network settings, effectively locking them out. But the discovery was still disconcerting. Charter has since fixed this problem, but you may not be so lucky with your service. My advice: If you're using cable with a stand-alone PC, your best protection is to turn sharing off.
Spreading the word
Still on the fence about cable modems? Then log on (slowly) to the Net and take in some sites. Start at Sam's Cable Modem Trials and the Cable Modem Help Page. Also visit home.tampabay.rr.com/philip1 for tips on how to tweak a cable modem.
Despite the hassles, cable is the way I'm surfing from now on. Then again, I hear Pac Bell plans to offer Digital Subscriber Line service in my town. Stay tuned.
Contributing Editor Steve Bass is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the president of the Pasadena IBM Users Group.
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