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Direct Internet Connections
No Lamborghini but a Chevy will do

Joyceis a senior technical writer for a local software company.


"In Silicon Valley, Zippy Web Lines Spark a Surprise: Slow Demand, Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2000, page B1. 

Here in the affluent heart of Silicon Valley, the city of Palo Alto is offering residents blinding fast Internet hookups ó up to 2,000 times as fast as conventional modems, and 60 times as fast as those most businesses use. But so few people have jumped at the offer that the city may have to scrub the project.  

The tepid response reflects the connectionís high costs, marketing missteps by the city and increased competition from less revolutionary, but much cheaper technologies, such as cable modems. It also suggests that there are cost and speed limits on the Web, even for the well-heeled and tech-savvy. 

In short, if superfast fiber-optic connections wonít fly in Palo Alto, can they make it anywhere? 

Computer users want faster connections, but "Not at every possible price and not under every possible condition," says Michael Eager, president of the Palo Alto Fiber Network, a group of local residents that has been lobbying city officials to make the faster connections available. 

The experiment began in 1997, when Palo Alto constructed a 31-mile ring of fiber-optic lines to lure high-tech businesses to the city. Fiber-optic lines carry computer traffic many times as fast as traditional copper phone lines or cable-television lines. Because theyíre also more expensive, telecommunications companies typically use them only to carry traffic between major cities and for big businesses. 

But since the fiber-optic lines run past many homes, Palo Altoís large cadre of techies began asking if they, too, could take advantage of the virtually unlimited bandwidth. Software engineer Peter Allen invited city council members individually to his home for a PowerPoint programmed presentation similar to untold numbers of Silicon Valley marketing pitches. "You can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much bandwidth," Mr. Allen says. 

Slowly, officials came around. Last August, the city council agreed to let residents of 670 homes near downtown tap the fiber-optic lines. But the council insisted that users cover the estimated $380,000 cost of the project. It said the city would only proceed if there were 100 subscribers who agreed to take the service for at least 2½ years.  

Despite several extensions of the deadline, only 61 residents have signed up, not including 12 residents of an adjoining neighborhood who want to be included. The city plans another push next month. The connections would be unimaginably fast for homes. . . roughly 100 to 400 times as fast as high-speed cable modems and DSL, or digital-subscriber lines. But they would also be expensive: At least $1,200 for installation, plus $45 to $70 a month, and a still-to-be-determined monthly charge to whatever private company ends up providing the Internet service."

 
Fiber, once installed and paid for, is unmatched in terms of speed, reliability, and ability to serve multitudes of users. Currently, it is used only for a large companyís network backbone (the main network line connecting the servers to each other and connecting the company to the outside world). Companies typically use cheaper technologies such as Ethernet to extend the connections from the servers to the user workstations. 

What makes the idea of fiber in the home revolutionary is that the typical home user has not yet installed a home network, and wouldnít have a clue as to how to purchase and install a router, an expensive piece of hardware needed to connect to fiber. Fiber is great for those who want the best of everything. Soís a Lamborghini, but the Chevy will get you to the grocery store just as efficiently (perhaps more, since you can rest assured that the Chevy will still be in the parking lot when you come out with your groceries. But thatís another story.) 

Fiber is not available for home users in San Antonio, so this is a moot point for us. We do, however, have some viable alternatives that are less expensive and can prove just as efficient as the old Chevy. Cable Modems and Digital Subscriber Lines are both available in the San Antonio area. 

John Woody, in PC Alamodeís Comm Corner, wrote an excellent series of articles comparing the alternatives, specifically DSL and Cable Modems. After reading these articles, my family first leaned toward DSL, since I sometimes telecommute and thus welcomed DSLís greater security options. But when we called for quotes, we were told that that our home is located outside the service area. 

With that decision made for us, we ordered a cable modem. Since we have a home network, the required Ethernet cards and cables were already installed on our computers. Our only extra expense was the installation and the modem itself. The monthly service expense was pretty much covered by canceling AOL and our second phone line. 

The installers ran a cable to our house that was separate from our TV cable and placed the hookup in my office. Not surprisingly, it looks just like a TV cable hookup. We connected the cable to the modem using a standard coaxial cable (like the one on your cable TV). The modem then connected to our network hub using a network cable (a Category 5 Unshielded Twisted Pair cable with an RJ-45 connection ó that is the connector that looks like a fat phone connector). If we didnít have a hub, the same type of network cable would have attached the modem to an Ethernet card installed in the computer. 

The original installation was about a simple as it could be. We ran across a single problem: Our hub originally didnít recognize the connection. We hemmed and hawwed around and thought about it a while.  Even considered reading the instructions. But before we could get out the reading glasses, we realized that the fourth port on the hub serves two purposes: as a standard port, it connects another computer; as an uplink port, it connects to another piece of hardware that serves the network. We reasoned that the cable modem fit that description, so I got down on the floor and pressed the button that transforms the fourth port into an uplink port. Bingo! We had cable modem. 

The up side of cable modem: 
My son says itís the immediate access for web surfing and the file transfer speed. My husband appreciates the smooth viewing of video broadcasts and the ability to listen to radio stations on the other side of the planet. Just the other night we were listening to rock music from Moscow. For me, itís the ability to keep my e-mail running all the time, and never again have to deal with a busy signal. 

We had heard that only one computer on the network can user the modem at a time. All three of us have used the modem at the same time, with no ill effects and no noticeable degradation of service. 

The down side of cable modem: 
Because we heard that lack of security is a problem with an always-connected cable modem, we had to install a firewall. Firewall software is a complicated product that takes a while to figure out. Until we got the hang of it, it effectively kept us from accessing each othersí computers on our network. 

Another downside: 
Iím itching to get started on my new five megabyte web space, but unfortunately, I canít get the WS_FTP software offered on the Road Runner web site to work. The first problem is that the instructions for installation and setup are vague and the example screens in the instructions donít match the screens that appear in the software. The instructions themselves leave much to be desired. They read as if the author is trying to cover up for the fact that s/he really doesnít know how the software works. Judging from the content of the WS_FTP log file, however, it looks like this problem may be a server side. The log file shows that the connection makes it to the point of checking the password, at which time access is denied. Iíve tried four different passwords (and, yes, I do know that passwords are case-sensitive). I keep writing to tech support and they keep resetting my password, but they wonít explain to me what they think the problem is, and the passwords they give me donít work. 

The instructions for setting up Netscape Communicator to retrieve e-mail are equally vague. And if there is a way to simply display the member pages and check your mail on the fly (the way you can with Yahoo and AOL), I havenít found out how to do it. My traveling daughter therefore set up her Road Runner mail to automatically forward to her Yahoo address. Mail forwarding is a nice feature. 

I might interject that setting up Outlook Express to check my Road Runner mail was a no-brainer. After a super-simple setup, I was able to connect on the first try. 

The modem manager software itself appears to be a little quirky. Clicking the modem manager icon logs you into the Road Runner web site member area. However, the icon appears to get disabled after use, and I have to reboot the system to get it to work again. A workaround is to manually log into the Road Runner web site, although this is a little more cumbersome.


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