|"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
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
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
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
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.
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.