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Full speed ahead

Cable, phone and satellite companies are racing to win subscribers for high-speed Internet connections and woo them away from their slower 56K modems.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 28, 2000


art
[Times art: Branden Jeffords]
Speed is king when it comes to surfing the Internet. The faster, the better. But it gets complicated as soon as people try to determine the best choice for such high-speed access.

Justin Beech started a Web site (www.dslreports.com) so consumers could get more information about digital subscriber line technology, the type of high-speed connection offered by local phone companies. But it doesn't mean he recommends it for everyone.

"If you're not a real serious computer user and cable is available, it's a better choice," Beech said. "It can be installed in a few days and is more likely to work when the tech leaves."

But Pete Allan in Hillsborough County chose DSL from Verizon Communications, formerly GTE. Among his reasons: He doesn't like Time Warner, the cable company. So far, he's satisfied with his choice.

And Donny Morelock, owner of Cable Alternative in St. Petersburg, can't wait until improved satellite access becomes available so computer users can receive and send over high-speed connections, unlike current satellite systems that require a phone line to send data.

Most people chug along with their 56K modems, dialing up through conventional phone connections for Internet access. But cable, phone and satellite companies are trying to outdo each other to attract customers to their brand of speed. All promise Web pages that load in a flash, the ability to download large files in minutes rather than hours and "streaming" video that will show a music video or TV news report with few delays or glitches.

A long road to high-speed access
It seems a fair question to ask any business: Can I buy what you're selling?

Moving into the fast lane
Here are some things to check before deciding on high-speed Internet access:

The good news for consumers is that high-speed, or "broadband," services are available in more areas, and the competition may mean lower prices. Starting Friday, for example, Verizon is cutting its basic DSL service by $10 to $39.95 a month, which matches what a typical cable service charges.

The bad news, though, is that none of the technologies is perfect. Of 2,445 broadband users surveyed, 30 percent said they had significant problems with DSL and cable service, according to a survey by PC World magazine.

Cable users regularly complain about slowdowns caused by too many people on the system, and DSL customers have reported problems ranging from getting the service installed to losing telephone service.

But the same survey also showed a lot of happy users, with 87 percent of cable subscribers and 86 percent of DSL subscribers satisfied with their overall experience.

"The people who have a smooth experience don't have a lot to say," Beech said. "The best (Internet service provider) is an invisible one."

Cable leads

In January 1998, Time Warner's Road Runner cable modem service claimed 1,500 subscribers in the Tampa Bay area. Now, it has more than 65,000.

"The demand has outpaced even our best forecasts," said Mark Bailey, vice president of Time Warner's Road Runner Online Services in the area.

Nationally, Road Runner expects to sign up its 1-millionth customer soon and to have 1.5-million by year-end. The cable modem industry is predicted to have about 3.5-million subscribers by year-end, according to a report by Kagan Media Appraisals, more than doubling the number from last year.

But the effects of growth irritate some cable subscribers, who complain about slowdowns and outages, problems related to how a cable system works.

Unlike DSL, which gives a customer a personal connection to the Internet, cable modem systems are like party lines serving a particular area, such as a neighborhood. It's usually not a problem if only a few people are on the system but slows as more people go online. Speeds can vary widely hour by hour, even minute by minute.

Road Runner advertises speeds up to 50 times faster than a 56K modem, but it's a level that's rarely if ever achieved. Recent speed checks on a home computer calculated speeds 15 to 25 times faster than a 56K modem.

"The mind-set that the service is slowing down because we have too many subscribers could technically be a true statement," Bailey said, "if we didn't engineer the network properly."

As new subscribers sign up, Bailey says, Road Runner adds the necessary equipment to prevent areas from becoming overloaded, though "periodically we might be a day or two behind the complaints."

Road Runner also has taken on some bigger customers, such as the Pinellas County school system and the city of St. Petersburg, but Bailey says those have not affected system performance either.

Too many subscribers is not the only potential problem. Some people hog the system. Time Warner in New York reported that 6 percent of its subscribers account for 50 percent of the system's use, and in some other areas 4 percent or 5 percent of customers can be responsible for up to 85 percent of system use. That's why cable companies bar users from hosting Web sites or other commercial uses on residential cable connections.

Road Runner charges $39.95 a month and an installation fee of $100, though that often is waived as part of promotions to attract customers. The company also will throw in the modem and the network card needed for your computer if you don't have one. But the package comes with Road Runner's Internet service provider. You'd have to pay an extra $10 a month to America Online to keep using it if you switch from a phone to a cable connection.

Verizon offers its WorldWind cable modem service in parts of Pinellas County but is trying to sell WorldWind as well as americast, its cable TV subsidiary.

DSL makes a push

As Steve Halle talked on the phone, he downloaded a 16-megabyte file from the Internet over the same phone line using DSL. He's paying less for a faster connection than he got using ISDN, a high-speed phone line that was being promoted a few years ago.

"I've never been out of service since I had it," said Halle, an Oracle developer in St. Petersburg and a Verizon customer. "I've never had a problem with the connection or a slowdown at all."

Halle's good fortune with Verizon's service has not necessarily been typical of DSL users across the country. Headlines reflect the problems, such as "DSL Providers Coping With Outages" (Internetnews.com, April) and "Night of the Living DSL: Broadband Horror Stories" (New York Times, May).

DSL, which generally has been more expensive for slower speeds than cable, has other issues for consumers to consider. First, consumers have to live within a certain distance (usually 3 miles) of a phone company center to get the service.

Ordering DSL can be a headache, says Beech of dslreports.com. If a user decides not to buy through a phone company such as Verizon, for example, he might have to deal with three companies: a DSL provider such as a small phone company, an Internet service provider and the big phone company that provides wired connection. A check at The List (www.thelist.com) shows dozens of companies that provide DSL service in the 727 area code.

Unlike cable modem service, consumers have to decide the speed of their connection, with faster costing more. Verizon's basic service, called Bronze, is $39.95 a month, including its Internet service -- again, not including AOL -- and it has a promotion waiving installation fees and the modem. That pays for a connection of 768 kilobits per second downloading (getting data from the Internet) and 128 kilobits per second uploading (sending messages, data or a request for information to the Internet).

DSL substantially trails cable in the number of subscribers. By the end of this year, there will be 900,000 DSL subscribers in the United States and more than double that number by the end of 2001, said Fritz McCormick, an analyst at the Yankee Group.

Beech, whose site lists DSL providers and allows users to post reviews of their service, sees only a few home users who would be better off with DSL than cable. Gamers, for example, probably would prefer DSL's constant connection speed to the fluctuations in cable.

"If prices become comparable and installation hassles go away, DSL could have the upper hand for those kinds of users," Beech said.

But he thinks it may be another year before the industry works out the kinks. "Marketing is leading implementation," he said, as phone companies struggle to handle the crush of orders.

But Halle and Allen, the two local Verizon customers, say they haven't endured any glitches. Both installations went smoothly, both used the connection for their home networks without problem and both are pleased with the speed.

Additionally, Halle likes that Verizon gave him a choice among more than 30 Internet service providers, though if someone chooses Verizon for the connection and another ISP it could cost more.

One other note: Last summer, America Online and GTE (now Verizon) planned to introduce a DSL service here that reportedly would have cost $42 a month. Verizon spokesman Bob Elek in Tampa said the companies still are working on those plans despite AOL's merger with Time Warner.

Up in the sky

Satellite systems have been a one-way street for high-speed access: fast for downloads, but users had to send data back over a slow phone line. That's about to change.

Several companies plan to offer services that will allow users to receive and send data from a rooftop dish, similar to those used for satellite TV.

That will be "very advantageous to the speed mongers who are looking for high-speed access both ways," said Donny Morelock, owner of Cable Alternative in Pinellas Park, which offers satellite Internet access and TV service.

One of the companies is Gilat-To-Home (www.gilat2home.com) in McLean, Va., which counts Microsoft and EchoStar Communications among its investors. According to its Web site, Gilat-To-Home expects the service to be available nationally by the end of the year.

It promises speeds about 10 times faster than a standard modem for receiving data and twice as fast for sending. Prices have not been announced, but the company pledges to "compete aggressively in the consumer broadband marketplace."

Morelock, who has been in business seven years, thinks two-way will make a big difference for those who want speed but don't have other choices.

"Unless someone has a specific need for downloading, it was hard to justify setting up with DirecPC (a satellite access provider)," said Morelock, whose customers include businesses in buildings that aren't wired for cable or don't have DSL available.

A potential downside to satellite? "If you have bad enough weather, even the cable systems have problems," said Morelock, who expects the technology to make such problems minimal.

Also on the horizon are wireless access systems. Companies such as MCI WorldCom and Sprint have been testing systems using slices of the airwaves originally designated for wireless cable TV.

- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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