- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2000

What's all this about bandwidth? It's a valid question, given last week's hubbub over the AOL-Time Warner merger.

One of the aspects much discussed in that deal was the "bandwidth" Time Warner's cable operations gives to AOL. In case you don't know what bandwidth really is or why it's important read on.

What it is:

Bandwidth is, in its simplest form, the size of a communications "pipe" going into your home or office. If you access the Internet with a regular dial-up telephone line, you can expect a top access speed of about 53 kilobits per second, since that's the maximum allowed under current FCC rules.

Hook up a "cable modem," which links to the Internet via a cable television service and you can get up to 1.5 megabits per second of download speeds, as well as 300 kbps upload speeds. Those numbers are "ideal" ones; in reality, my download speeds are in the 600 kbps range for Web pages, although a test I ran this morning delivered a 15 Mbyte file to my computer in one minute and 50 seconds.

Compare that with a 28.8, 33.6 or even 56 kbps dial-up modem and you'll see why having more bandwidth is attractive.

Why it's important:

As mentioned here a few weeks ago, bandwidth is important if you want to escape the joys of driving north on I-95 in the morning, or surviving the nexus of the Beltway in Maryland and Northern Virginia. Or maybe you've had it with Route 7 or even riding the Metro.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is trying to press states and cities into cutting automobile traffic by 25 percent in the coming years. The only way that's going to happen is with telecommuting, and for that to work effectively, you need bandwidth.

Consider: The whole idea of remote access is to work "seamlessly" at home as you do in the office. Under the most favorable of circumstances, that means logging on to a computer and seeing the same "desktop" image you'd see at work. Having a telephone line (or two) available for voice and fax calls might not be too bad, either and for that you would need either cable Internet access or Digital Subscriber Line service, which boosts data transmission speeds "upstream" (or to a network) to around 128 kbps and "downstream" traffic to between 512 kbps and 1.56 Mbps.

Without such fast access, it would take a long time to "refresh" your screen every time you initiated an action. Such frustrations plagued early (and later) users of remote access software packages such as CarbonCopy (from Compaq Computer) and pcAnywhere from Symantec. Now, these programs are ready to work in the most demanding environments.

To be fair, it's not impossible to work from home using a dial-up modem. But, as one user stated on a recent radio discussion of faster Internet access, "Once you get a cable modem, you never go back."

What you need:

Typically, users of Windows 95 and Windows 98 operating systems as well as the Mac OS are able to handle cable modem and DSL connectivity without adding software.

(Because DSL and cable modem services are based in part on Ethernet networking technology, you'll need to set up your computer for an Ethernet connection and most likely get a "Network Interface Card," or NIC, in your PC. Macs have had a built-in Ethernet port for years.)

It's also customary for the high-speed service provider to include a modem (cable or DSL) with the service, usually for free or at very low cost as an inducement to sign up. In the case of cable, these modems are almost always external; some DSL modems can be installed in an available PC expansion slot. (Mac users will need an external DSL modem.)

What it costs:[

Cable modem service seems to run around $40 per month where I reside; your cost may be higher or lower. DSL prices are a little higher, it would appear, but the service is a bit better because DSL lines run directly to a telephone company central office; cable Internet service is essentially a "party line" which can slow down if the network in your neighborhood is too crowded (at which point the cable company usually splits the circuit to restore higher-speed service).

It's not what it costs, however, so much as what it's worth. If you're trying to shift to telecommuting, if you're a budding entrepreneur in your basement, or if you just want a faster link to the outside world, this whole question of bandwidth will confront you sooner or later, perhaps sooner given last week's events.

Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002, send e-mail to [email protected], or visit the writer's Web page (www.markkellner.com).

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