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How to Choose the Best Broadband Internet Access Option  

Not so many years ago, accessing the Internet was a 'one size fits all' technology. When you wanted to surf the web, send and receive emails, post files to a web site, or just play around on AOL, you accessed it all through your telephone line using a modem and a standard dial-up account. Most of us didn't mind because we realized that the slow speeds we endured were shared by everyone else.

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How to Choose the Best Broadband Internet Access Option

by Jacob Minett

Not so many years ago, accessing the Internet was a 'one size fits all' technology. When you wanted to surf the web, send and receive emails, post files to a web site, or just play around on AOL, you accessed it all through your telephone line using a modem and a standard dial-up account. Most of us didn't mind because we realized that the slow speeds we endured were shared by everyone else. The notion of Internet 'speed envy' had yet to emerge.

Well, those days are long gone! Nowadays, in ever-increasing numbers, people are dumping their old dial-up modems and those slow connections for a much faster Internet experience through DSL, cable, and satellite technologies. In 2002, only 21% of Internet users had broadband connections at home. As of late 2005, that number had risen to 53% [Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project].

For the remaining 47% still using dial-up access, it's often because they live where DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable technologies are not available. Yes, there are still lots of rural areas that do not have access to either. Among those who do have access to broadband connections, it is most often older and poorer Americans who choose to keep dial-up access.

Which Internet Access Option is Best for You?

You may be wondering which broadband solution is the best option. While much depends on what's available in your area, for many users it comes down to a personal choice, centered on convenience, speed, and cost. Let's examine the various technologies and the relative advantages of each.

Cable Internet Access

Using your home's existing cable television lines, you can get Internet access included for an additional fee. Expect a large speed increase versus dial-up access. In fact, in many cases cable Internet access is the fastest alternative. Installation is usually completed quickly with just one visit from your cable company's technicians. You will also need a cable modem (supplied by the cable company in virtually every instance, but can be purchased separately as well).

Clearly, the biggest advantage of going with cable access is speed. All things being equal, it is the fastest of the three broadband alternatives, with a top speed of 10 Mbps (Megabits per second). Having said that, cable speeds can be substantially reduced if you share a local network with a lot of other subscribers. People living in densely packed areas, or locations where the cable company has a lot of users on the same network, will only realize a fraction of that top speed. It's a good idea to call your cable provider and ask some pointed questions about these issues before you order. Better yet, ask neighbors who have cable Internet what kind of speed they get.

DSL Internet Access

Digital Subscriber Line access utilizes your existing telephone line in an innovative way to greatly increase your Internet speeds. While cable is usually faster, DSL is substantially speedier than traditional dial-up access and offers a much-improved experience for a modest increase in cost. Installation is quick, usually only requiring a simple change at your home's phone box outside of the house by a phone company technician. You will need a DSL modem, which is included at no extra charge by most providers when you sign an extended service contract.

If you live where DSL is not currently available, be patient. Major providers like Sprint, Verizon, and AT&T are spreading their coverage areas quickly. Even many rural areas can expect to have DSL access in the coming months.

The two big advantages of choosing DSL are cost and speed. You will only need to get the modem and follow some simple instructions to configure it. If you agree to a one-year contract with your phone service provider (most major carriers), the modem will cost you nothing. And the service itself is generally in the $15-$40 per month range, making it a good bargain.

Speed is a bit trickier with DSL. It is slower than cable (top speed is about 6 Mbps), and the major providers offer different packages that limit speeds based on the price you pay per month. To further muddy the waters, DSL is what's known as a 'distance limited' technology. This means that how far you live from the nearest telephone company switching station determines your actual speed. Those living within a few yards will experience the highest speeds, while those at the other end of your street or block may only get half that speed. As with cable, call your local phone provider and ask questions about the various services and what kind of actual speed you can expect based on your exact physical location in relation to the switching station for your street or neighborhood. If you have a next-door neighbor with DSL, ask what his or her experience has been, as yours will probably be very similar.

Satellite Internet Access

Satellite Internet access uses a small mounted dish and group of electronics to send and receive data through satellites orbiting the Earth over the equator. Users must have a clear view of the Southern sky (in the U.S.) from the face of the dish, unobstructed by trees, buildings, and other obstacles. Coaxial cabling connects the outdoor equipment to indoor send-and-receive equipment that then connects to your computer through a standard USB connector or network card.

The major advantage with satellite Internet access is faster connection speeds for people who live where cable and DSL are not available. Users can expect to download data at a rate that is about 10 to 30 times faster than dial-up access. While satellite Internet connections are significantly faster than dial-ups, they are slower than cable and DSL, and should not be the first choice for those who do have cable or DSL available to them. Satellite access is also more expensive than DSL or cable and can suffer outages when the weather turns ugly. Clearly, the other two are better options unless you live where they are not available.

The Bottom Line

Overall, cable and DSL are terrific broadband Internet access solutions for the majority of people who live in urban or suburban locations. Satellite access adds a much-needed alternative for folks living in rural areas, completing the coverage area for the vast majority of America and Canada. While proponents of both cable and DSL have legitimate arguments in favor of their services, deciding between them should be made on an individual basis, determined by the actual speeds and costs for each in your location.

If speed is your top priority and you live where there are not a lot of other users sharing the local cable network, go with cable (especially if your neighbors report high speeds and good service). If not, look into DSL. If cost is your main consideration and speed isn't as important, a lower-end DSL service will probably be a better fit, as long as you don't live too far from the nearest telephone switching station. Finally, if you live in a rural area, satellite Internet access may be right up your alley, especially if you long for faster downloads and web site surfing.

About the Author

If you do live in a rural area where cable or DSL are not an option then your best bet would be to go with the new WildBlue Satellite System.

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