Compare & Contrast
No More World Wide Wait
by Anthony Paonita
MY FRIEND Tim is a solo practitioner in suburban New York City. He's grown dependent on the Internet for everyday tasks such as checking a lawyer's name when drafting a motion, or checking on the status of his cases.
Tim works out of his home's former sun porch. Unlike his professional colleagues in big-firm office suites with their access to networks and T1 lines, he had to dial-in to his Internet provider. But as his dependence on the Web and e-mail grew, Tim got tired of dialing-in and then disconnecting over and over again.
So he needed "broadband," or fast Internet access that was always connected, without dialing up. Tim's -- and many others' -- choices were limited. The local cable TV company was a couple of months away from supplying cable modem service. But a lot of Internet service providers and phone companies were vying to supply DSL, or digital subscriber line service.
How fast? At least, and often more than 10 times the speed of a 56K modem.
Those are the two main choices for most of us -- at least those of us who'd rather not pay a couple of thousand dollars a month for a T1 line. Both cable and DSL services have their quirks.
One Big TV Network
It seems natural that cable television providers would supply Internet services. Their networks already exist in most places, and those wires into your house or office are, to use industry slang, really big pipes, capable of shifting vast amounts of data around.
All the big cable companies offer some form of Internet access, but you'll have to check whether it's available in your neighborhood. Time Warner Cable, for example, promises that its Roadrunner service will come any day now to my neighborhood. Comcast is another big player, as is @Home, with more than 300,000 subscribers. In any event, your choices are limited to your local cable provider. [See chart, this page.]
It's swift -- theoretically up to 30 MB per second. But other factors make sure it's only theoretical. Most Ethernet, or fast network cards aren't that fast therein. And cable Internet networks are like party lines. The more traffic, the slower the Internet access -- just like an office network. That said, many users don't really notice much of a slowdown, and in any event, the 'Net's speed varies naturally as more people get online. Most corporate T1 line users notice a big slowdown mid-afternoon, when all of the country is online, happily Web surfing and zapping millions of e-mails around. Plus cable modem users seem to have an easier time of getting connected, perhaps a virtue of it being an older, more established technology.
Dual-Purpose Phone Lines
A few years ago, the in thing for fast Internet access was the ISDN line. But that's been eclipsed by DSL, or digital subscriber line. Basically, the telecom company (telco) splits one of your voice phone lines, sending Internet data at high frequencies and allowing you to use the lower frequencies for old-fashioned phone calls.
DSL services are still in their relative infancy, so anyone considering it has to be willing to put up with installation hassles. The telco will need to check your access and proximity to a local phone interchange; those who are too far away may be denied service. Your inside wiring has to be up to snuff, too.
Tim's experience may be fairly typical. His local telco had trouble showing up at a given appointment to install the DSL modem and verify the state of his wiring. It took about two months of almost comically missed appointments for them to show up. The telco and ISP blamed the other for the mishap. In the meantime, Tim had to take his PC to the shop to get an Ethernet, or network card installed. Unless you're comfortable with jump switches and DOS prompts, have a professional do it--it will run you about $75-$100. Or make sure your next PC has one preinstalled.
You can tweak your machine to make your surfing faster once installed. Subscribe to Scott Finnie's Broadband report; Tim follows his advice religiously and says he's almost doubled his download speeds.
Mac users have it a little easier. All Macs made in the last two years, including the lowliest iMacs, have built-in fast Ethernet. But they shouldn't get too smug; some ISPs look at the Mac as though it were an alien creature and have little experience dealing with them. A colleague of mine battled with her telco as technicians insisted -- wrongly -- that the operating system on her Mac was too new to be supported.
For information on DSL service, both anecdotal and expert, go to DSL Reports, a great resource for those about to take the plunge.
Both DSL and cable users run a new risk: hackers trying to get into their computers. Unlike a dial-up connection, where your computer gets a new IP (Internet protocol) address each time you hook up, your fast Internet service will likely come with a static, or permanent IP address. That means whenever your computer is turned on, it will be on the 'Net and others might be able to "see" you.
Do yourself a favor and secure your computer with a "firewall." In corporate networks, a firewall is a big, expensive piece of hardware configured by high-tech priests, which blocks attacks from the outside. But you can buy a software firewall, such as Norton Personal Firewall 2000 (Windows), or Intego's NetBarrier (Mac) for under $100. It's money well-spent.
With luck and patience, you'll soon have effortless, fast access to the 'Net. Tim says, despite all the aggravation, he'd do it again in a heartbeat. Not having to hear that modem screech--not to mention being able to download software updates in minutes, instead of hours--has made him a believer.
Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of American Lawyer magazine and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.