What is broadband?
What can broadband do for you?
How to Understand Speed
Where's the Catch?
How many kinds of broadband are there, anyway?
What Does the Future Hold?
What is broadband?
The Internet is getting more elaborate by the day. Web pages are swarming with animation, downloadable movies and music abound, and even emails from Grandma can contain pictures or even home video clips. The phone modems used by most people to get Internet access have reached the limits of their performance, necessitating new technologies to allow users to surf the Internet without having to wait minutes (or hours) for a page or file to download.
These new technologies are collectively known as broadband. They comprise a variety of different systems, but they all have one major goal: to increase the rate a user can send and receive data, and thus make the Internet (and other online activities, like videoconferencing) easier and faster to use. For the uninitiated, broadband is a bewildering array of acronyms and techno babble, most of which isn't really all that important to someone who's just trying to get a good deal on fast Internet access. In this article, we'll explain a few of the more important bits of jargon, but for the most part, we'll concentrate on making sure that you know exactly what you need to choose the broadband service that's right for you.
What can broadband do for you?
If you access the Internet from home, you've probably been using what's known as a dialup connection; in other words, you dial a telephone number on your computer, hear a series of weird sounds, and end up surfing the Internet about a minute later. Sometimes you get busy signals, or the connection speed suddenly drops to a snail's pace, or somebody in the house picks up the phone and cuts your connection right in the middle of an important download. Depending on your service provider, you might even have to carefully limit the amount of time you spend online, or else pay extra hourly fees.
The first advantage of broadband is that it generally avoids the hassles associated with dialup connections. With most forms of broadband, you can surf the 'net freely, without worrying about tying up your phone line or using up a precious allotment of hours.
The second (and for many, the more important) advantage of broadband is speed: lots of it. If you've sat around twiddling your thumbs while waiting for a web page to download, you know how annoying a slow connection is. With broadband, those aggravations are reduced or even eliminated. Not only will web surfing be faster in general, allowing you to hop from web page to web page almost as fast as you can click your mouse, but the speed of broadband opens up a host of other possibilities for both home and business users.
Streaming media are movies and music that can be viewed on your computer without first saving them to your hard drive, much like the way you've always been able to watch a television show without having to record it on a VCR first. Downloading a streaming video on a dialup connection is akin to picking up a faint TV signal using a coat hangar as an antenna; the signal can fade in and out, and even at its best, it's not great. With a broadband connection, a streaming video will come in fast and steady, with much better video quality.
Computer gamers can play online against opponents around the world, without lag or slowdown, and without the worry that a family member's important phone call will interrupt a vital shoot-em-up tournament. Some broadband connections even allow video conferencing, similar to the videophones that every science fiction movie character seems to have. While video conferencing is now possible using multiple ISDN lines and expensive equipment, the expense is far out of the budget of most residential and small-business users; the speed and cost of broadband brings this once-rare capability within reach of the average consumer.
The table below gives some comparative examples of the improvements of a broadband connection over dialup.
How to Understand Speed
Average time required to download (assuming optimal conditions):
|An email (5 Kilobytes)
|A basic web page (25 Kilobytes)
|A complex web page (500 Kilobytes)
|One five-minute song (5 Megabytes)
|One movie preview (30 Megabytes)
|One two-hour movie (500 Megabytes)
Note about wireless: the speed of wireless broadband depends on how your provider is set up; in many cases, wireless speed is closer to DSL, and in some cases, it's as slow as basic ISDN.
Where's the Catch?
Actually, there really isn't one, at least not if you shop carefully and know what you're getting. The major concern for most prospective broadband buyers is cost; logically, if your speed is going to increase tenfold, shouldn't the price increase at the same rate? Luckily for your pocketbook, that's not the case. The monthly fee for most residential broadband services hovers right around $50, which isn't much more than the combined cost of dialup service and a second phone line. There are often extra features available for an additional fee, but these aren't necessary for most home users; such features are often geared toward businesses, and are priced accordingly. The main "hidden cost" of broadband comes from the initial set-up. Buying the necessary hardware and paying someone to get it working can sometimes add up to several hundred dollars. However, competition is forcing many broadband providers to offer attractive discounts and promotions. These days, it's not uncommon to find offers of free hardware, free installation, or even easy self-install options.
There are other concerns to address, too, but don't worry; the final verdict is pretty good.
Some broadband services aren't yet widely available. Since many broadband systems use new technology, some providers haven't gotten around to implementing service in small towns and rural areas. If you live in a large metropolis, you have a good chance of having several choices for broadband service. In less-populated areas, you may be more limited, but even if you're alone out in the middle of a desert, you can still get a broadband connection via satellite.
Once it's working, broadband is refreshingly easy to use; in most cases, if your computer and modem are on, so is your Internet connection. However, actually getting the broadband equipment set up can be difficult for casual computer users, and almost impossible for novices. Luckily, many providers lower or even waive the cost of a professional installation, but if you do find yourself having to install a network card (a small circuit board with a phone-jack-like plug) in your computer, you can always get help from your provider's technical support line. It's uncommon for a provider not to offer 24/7 support for users with problems; after all, an unhappy customer often becomes a competitor's customer.
Your computer doesn't need to be the latest and greatest to run broadband; most computers sold within the last five years should be quite capable of supporting a broadband connection. You'll definitely want to check your system specifications, though, just to be sure. If you're not sure what the differences are between USB, PCI and a loaf of sliced bread, most broadband providers and support sites (including this one) have customer service reps as well as quick online tutorials that will get you up to speed on the basic attributes of your computer (hint: ignore the loaf of bread).
Current broadband systems are mostly "piggybacked" on existing technology; that is, they aren't so much a whole new car as they are a set of new tires on some old wheels. As such, they do sometimes run into problems related to the basic structure they're built on. Also, keep in mind that sometimes, popular web sites can get bogged down, making even the fastest connection run like molasses. Still, broadband at its worst is still usually better than dialup at its best.
Broadband is relatively new technology, and like most new technologies, it brings along a whole new set of problems. These days, most information sent to and from your computer is encrypted using special security codes that make it very hard for someone to read your personal messages. However, even if someone can't intercept your love letters, they can use your broadband connection to break into your computer and wreak havoc with your files and even your hardware. This vulnerability is inherent to the always-on nature of many broadband systems, and has been a problem for businesses for some time.
Don't let this scare you off, though; when properly set up and used, broadband is just as safe (or safer) than talking to someone on the phone. Most businesses use a kind of software program called a firewall to protect their computers; much like a physical firewall, a computer firewall is a sturdy barrier against outside attack. Firewall software is available for home use, and in fact, many providers include or suggest specific firewalls when you install their software. Take some time to learn about security requirements and protection; a few hours during the learning stages can save you a lot of headaches later on.
How many kinds of broadband are there, anyway?
There are currently five major types of broadband service. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, and some are notably better overall than others. We'll cover each one briefly:
Currently the most popular form of broadband, cable modem service uses the same cables that carry cable TV signals to carry data. You can get cable modem service as a stand-alone service or as an add-on to your current cable TV service. You can watch cable TV and use your cable broadband connection at the same time with no loss of quality.
The main disadvantage of cable is that the speed of the system is dependent on the number of people who are online at the same time; if many people in your neighborhood are using their cable modems at once, your connection speed may drop considerably. Cable modem performance can undergo significant fluctuations; at its best, it's the fastest of all consumer-level broadband services, but at its worst, it's almost as slow as a dialup service.
Cable modem service is a good choice if there aren't too many other cable modem users in your area, and you want a system that's easy to set up and maintain.
DSL stands for Digital Subscriber Line. It's fast and reliable, and uses standard copper phone lines to carry data. You don't need a second phone line to use most consumer DSL services, and you can talk on your phone while you're using your DSL connection to access the Internet. There are many varieties of DSL, but the most important are ADSL and SDSL. ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is designed for residential and small-business use. Most home Internet users receive (download) far more information from the Internet than they send (upload). ADSL provides a higher download speed than upload speed; therefore, it is ideal for home Internet users. In most cases, the upload speed of ADSL is still faster than a regular analog (phone) modem. SDSL (Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is designed for business users who need to both send and receive large amounts of data (as in the case of video conferencing or running a web server).
The main disadvantage of DSL is that its speed is dependent on your physical distance from the phone company's nearest central switch (known as a Central Office); the farther you are from the switch, the slower your average connection speed will be. Your home or business will have to pass a loop qualification test run by your phone company before you can have DSL installed. Also, DSL setup can be complex; in many cases, separate visits from the broadband provider and your phone company will be required.
DSL is a good choice if you are close to the phone company's central switch, if your phone lines are up to spec, and you need a reliable high-speed connection. While it's not yet as widely available as cable modem service, DSL is often a viable alternative and may sometimes even be preferable to cable modem.
Satellite broadband uses a dish on your house or building to send and receive data from satellites orbiting the Earth. The same dish may be used for satellite TV, depending on the service provider's offering. The main advantage of satellite Internet access over the other forms of broadband technology is its immediate availability; a clear view of the southern sky (in North America) is all that's needed. Thus, in places where cable modem, DSL and ISDN connections may be unavailable, you can still get a broadband connection, literally from out of the clear blue sky.
There are downsides, though. The performance of a satellite broadband connection can be degraded by bad weather, local interference, or a misaligned dish. Also, because of the way the satellite data transfer works, satellite service is not well suited to applications that require constant transmission of small data packets; these include online gaming, web page hosting, video conferencing, and multiple small file downloads.
Some satellite providers who have not upgraded to two-way satellite communication equipment also require the use of a phone modem connection to send data to the broadband provider; this results in additional costs and slower speed. However, the monthly costs are usually reasonable, the equipment is often discounted or free, and most importantly, you can get satellite almost anywhere. Satellite isn't as fast or reliable as DSL or cable, but if it's your only choice, it's definitely better than dialup.
ISDN is relatively old technology whose main advantages are wide availability and reliability. ISDN (it stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, but trust us, you don't need to bother remembering that) uses standard copper phone lines to transmit data. ISDN for the home user essentially splits your existing phone line into 2 channels, which can be used to make a phone call and surf the Internet (at 64 kbps), or the channels can be combined for Internet access at twice the speed of one channel (128 kbps).
ISDN is slower than the other, newer forms of broadband. Still, ISDN is often the only choice for many users whose cable and phone companies haven't yet (or aren't planning to) implement local cable or DSL service. ISDN also offers some advantages over satellite (the other widely-available broadband choice). For instance, ISDN is good for use by networked computers, online gamers, and web-page hosts; these are areas in which satellite's performance lags. ISDN lines are often used by businesses because their speed is reliable and constant; ISDN speed doesn't fluctuate as a result of bad weather, location, or cable modem activity in nearby buildings.
ISDN hardware is often complex and not easy for the novice to set up, and even basic ISDN service is more expensive than other forms of broadband. However, if neither cable nor DSL are available or suitable, ISDN is a viable, if expensive, way to get a broadband connection.
Wireless broadband (also known as fixed wireless to distinguish it from the mobile wireless system used by some pagers and mobile phones) is a new technology that uses an antenna placed on or in your building to send and receive data. The data is transmitted to and from your building via your city's wireless network, which consists of antenna towers placed three to five miles apart. As you might guess, this means that if your home or building isn't in a city with wireless service, you won't be able to get fixed wireless broadband. Currently, fixed wireless broadband service is very limited; however, the service areas are expanding quickly. If you can get wireless, you're getting an excellent broadband connection. The connection speed is not limited by your distance from the wireless antenna or by the number of wireless users in your area. Wireless' speed is currently comparable to ADSL; however, the theoretical maximum is much higher, so you can expect the speed of wireless connections to increase in coming years. Wireless is also an always-on connection that doesn't tie up your phone line. Wireless is a little more expensive than ADSL or cable, but the advantages are probably worth it.
What Does the Future Hold?
If you want broadband now and can't get it, keep your eyes open for new developments, because the face of broadband is changing rapidly. Only a few years ago, DSL was a new technology; now, it's nearly commonplace. Wireless, the new wonder of the broadband world, will become an increasingly popular choice for prospective broadband buyers.
All broadband providers and manufacturers are expanding their availability as fast as they can, hoping to get into areas where other companies have not yet tapped a speed-hungry market. Satellite, a technology that's already available practically everywhere, is the subject of upgrades that will make it more attractive to customers. Various service providers are planning improvements to speed and reliability that should be available over the next few years.
As with any new product, competition for customers is fierce. As more broadband choices become available, prices may drop, and more promotions and free extras will be offered. You'll have more providers to choose from, and you'll probably even be able to upgrade your current broadband service to something newer and better later on.
The growth of the Internet demands high-speed connections. Many flashy web sites with complex graphics are designed with broadband connection speeds in mind. Consumers are demanding faster ways to get the data they need, whether it's for personal entertainment or for work. Broadband technologies are the best way to get the most mileage out of the information superhighway.