Web Informant #164, 15 August 1999:
Picking the right fat pipe


Last week I presented Kim Maxwell's analysis of how the growing popularity of high-speed net access will produce bandwidth congestion. This week I want to talk about my own experiences in this area and some thoughts on the way to match applications with the various access technologies.

According to various hired guns, um, analysts, the number of US cable Internet subscribers is nearing a million, and the number of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) customers in the US is over 100,000. This compares to about 20 million AOL users (most of whom are still using 28.8 modems), by far the most popular way people access the Internet.

I am squarely part of this trend. For the past several months I have been using Cablevision's Optimum online service at home and Covad/Wired Business DSL service at my office. (Disclaimer: I am an advisor to both Covad and Wired Business and a Covad stockholder.) I did this deliberately to compare the two providers, both in terms of installation and day-to-day operational experiences. So which is better?

Cable is better for less-demanding home users. It is relatively inexpensive. It uses existing technology (cable coax) and an existing utility (cable) albeit one that is almost universally hated more than any other. The biggest challenge for cable access is running the coaxial cable to the PC. Also, users will need to network their PCs and some sort of firewall or network protection from the big bad Internet outside. (To read more about the trials and tribulations about installing a home network, see my Byte.com articles.) The issue for using cable for business users is that many cable companies aren't set up to provide such access, or are prevented by their local governments from doing so. And the more people who hook up, the worse overall throughput and latency gets, since cable is a shared medium.

Cable can range from easy to impossible to install, depending on where the cables run in your home and where your computers are. In my case, I made a single phone call to Cablevision and they did the install about a week later and finished everything they needed to do in about three hours. You typically have a single choice with your cable company: if they don't currently offer Internet access in your area, you are out of luck.

Cable can also be very unreliable, and I personally wouldn't run my business depending on cable Internet access (not that I have that option available, since Cablevision doesn't offer businesses any access). In my case, the line has gone down numerous times, varying from minutes to several hours, including an outage this past weekend during some thunderstorms. I have heard similar stories from other cable Internet users.

DSL is better for business users, even for small office/home office users. DSL is more expensive than cable, but also more reliable -- to my knowledge, I haven't experienced any significant outages in my service. The installation experience can be dicey, mainly because service may depend on several companies working together who are currently mortal enemies. These companies include the local phone company (who needs to bring in a line to your home office), the DSL provider (who maintains the overall data network), and your ISP (who sets up the Internet access and any applications such as email and news). In some cases, you could elect to obtain all three elements from your local phone company.

At the time I was looking around earlier in the year, Bell Atlantic DSL service wasn't yet available in my area. Also, I wasn't happy with the price of my BA ISDN service, and could get a continuous network connection for about the same fee that I was paying for about 30 hours of ISDN connection per month. Since I had a relationship with Covad, I elected to go with them as my DSL provider and use a small ISP called Wired Business who specializes in DSL connections.

(By the way, Wired Business is one of the first ISPs to offer a totally automated means to signup for DSL service: you go to their web site, fill in information about where you are located and how you intend to pay with a few simple web forms. It is a pretty neat application and an illustration of what you can do with XML.)

The ordering process for my office DSL line was a bit more complex than the home cable situation, reflecting all these different players. And DSL comes in various speeds and feeds, adding to the complexity. It was easy for me to get confused as to whom to call for what problem during the installation phase. But over the span of many weeks and many "truck rolls" (as this industry calls the interaction of its employees with you the customer), I got new wire for the "last mile" to my office. Yet the hassles were worth it, and now everything is working fine. I am also happy to see my BA phone bill drop, mainly because I can't stand the company and how I as a customer am treated.

Given the vocabulary, it isn't any surprise why both cable and phone utilities have such disdain for you, its customer. I mean -- last mile and truck rolls -- shouldn't these be called the first mile and service calls? Maybe by changing the terms we can improve attitudes and service levels. Maybe we need more competition here in the high-speed access area too. (Indeed, in addition to Covad and the local bells, both Rhythms and Northpoint offer DSL service to many US cities.)

Overall, I prefer my DSL line at work to the cable line at home. The cable companies don't really know how to run their data networks, although for my family the continuous service has really changed the way they interact with the Internet and they are mostly satisfied with the service.

But what is happening with both DSL and cable is that we are dividing our attention between companies that provide access (the big pipes) from companies that provide applications (email, chat, and so forth). I think this is a good thing. When many of us got connected, we didn't care that the same entity was both our access and applications provider, such as our ISP or AOL. Now we are more discriminating.

This lies at the core of the current debate between AOL and AT&T's cable operators, as more and more AOL users sign up for cable or other high-speed access but continue to want to use their AOL screen names for chat and IM. Some cable operators want to provide their own applications and content: this is at the core of the Excite/@Home merger. It will be interesting to see how this all shapes up.

Self-promotions dep't

Many of the thoughts expressed above originated in my first feature article for Windows Sources on high-speed Internet access technologies. And while old, it is still worth reading.

My earlier essay on how my email service was hacked was picked up by Byte.com. Here are also links to my home networking pieces as well.

And a piece on what the major print trade publications are doing with their email newsletters has been published by Sam Whitmore's Media Survey. I take a comprehensive look at the kinds of email newsletters these publishers have created, and some of the leading examples pro and con. You can find it on his site here.

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David Strom
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