The most important component of my work environment is a connection to the Internet. With a decent connection, I can work from pretty much anywhere in the world. In this post, we are going to look at some of the different technologies used to connect to the Internet and talk a bit about each one’s strengths and weaknesses.
Cable modems have the capacity to offer extremely high speeds. Usually this is limited by the cable company. In most places, you can get 1Mbps to 10Mbps downloads with .5Mbps to 2Mbps upload speed. Cable modems share the bandwidth with other people on the same cable, so your speeds may be at least partially dependent on what your neighbors are doing. Usually this isn’t too much of a problem, but it can become an issue if you need every last kilobit of bandwidth for something right at the point that your neighbor gets an overwhelming desire to download the entire Internet.
At my home office, I have a cable connection from SuddenLink that I primarily use as a backup for my AT&T DSL connection. It only gives me about 2 Mbps down and .3 Mbps up, but it is adequate for most of my normal work.
DSL is offered by telephone companies and has less theoretical bandwidth than cable modems. In actual practice, it is common to have bandwidth in the 6Mbps down and .75 Mbps range. Your speeds have a lot to do with how far you are from the central office (CO). DSL generally doesn’t work beyond about 14,000 feet of wire and even at that distance you probably won’t get the higher speed offerings.
On the plus side, DSL doesn’t share bandwidth with your neighbors–everyone has their own set of wires running back to the central office.
My primary Internet connection in my home office is DSL through AT&T. I have the DSL only option (also known as dry dsl or naked DSL) which means I don’t have to pay for a regular phone line. This works very well because between cell phones, Skype, Vonage, Grand Central and Ring Central, I really don’t need another phone number to deal with.
There are two ways satellite Internet is set up. One way uses a satellite dish for receiving data and a traditional dial-up phone line and modem for sending data. For many people, this works out fine because normal web browsing requires very little outgoing data to request web pages. The second type of satellite system uses satellite for both sending and receiving data so you don’t need to tie up the phone line.
The biggest problem with satellite is the latency. With the bi-directional systems, a single click sends a message up 21,000 miles, down 21,ooo miles, to the server, back up 21,000 miles, down 21,000 miles and then to your screen. This process takes some time and it is common to have delays of around 1.5 seconds just for a packet of data to make it out and back. This doesn’t have anything to do with your bandwidth–you get the same delay no matter what. With the modem/satellite combo sytems, the delay is supposed to be a little less.
Regardless of what system you use, the delay makes it nearly impossible to use satellite for things like VoIP or video conferencing. ( I once had a friend try using Vonage on a satellite connection and he was getting a delay of 5 to 8 seconds from when he would say something into the Vonage phone until he heard it on his cell phone.)
Still, in some areas of the country, Satellite may be the only available option. It works well for email and other services that aren’t directly interactive over the network.
For a while I had a satellite system (Wild Blue) setup for my parents who live in a rural area. It was always a pain to use, but still better than the dedicated dialup line they had for years. We moved them over to EVDO which has been a significantly better experience.
EVDO is currently offered by Sprint and Verizon. HSDPA is offered by AT&T. As you can probably guess, these technologies work over the cell phone network. EVDO speeds are around 1.5 Mbps down and .5 Mbps up. HSDPA is supposed to be quite a bit faster, but from the people I’ve talked with, it sounds like it isn’t much faster in actual practice. Speeds are very dependent on your signal strength. (AT&T is supposed to be upgrading their HSDPA infrastructure to HSDPA+ which will offer significantly faster speeds.)
Aside from the slower speeds, other drawbacks include the cap on usage and high price. Most companies cap the usage at 5 Gigs per month. If you just use it occasionally, this isn’t too bad, but it makes it difficult to use as your primary connection if you are a heavy Internet user. The cost is usually around $70 per month with a two year contract.
It is also possible to use your phone as a modem to connect to EVDO or HSDPA. In some cases, those data plans are less expensive.
I use a Sprint EVDO card for when I’m traveling or working from a rural area where I don’t have any other option. I also have the ability to use my Blackberry as a bluetooth modem on my Mac, but I usually don’t. I also have a router that allows you to plug in a card and a phone in order to balance your traffic over both of them at the same time. This doesn’t work quite as well as it sounds, but it can be helpful if you have several computers all running at the same time.
Dial up is one of the slower options. You are looking at speeds in the .02 Mbps to .05 Mbps range. For years, my parents used a dialup connection for internet on our family’s farm. I put in an older Apple Airport with a modem and it was hooked to a dedicated phone line and would automatically dial out to the ISP whenever someone tried to use the Internet. It was very slow, but it worked well for checking email.
Of course, by the time you pay for an extra phone line and the ISP, you start getting into the range of what a satellite connection will cost.
Many parts of the country have wireless internet service providers (Wisps). They use technology similar to the Wifi networking you use in your house but with a longer range. Often these types of systems will require an antenna on the outside of your house with line of site access to the tower.
Speeds are very dependent upon the company and the technology they are using. I have used systems with 7Mbps both ways, but most of the wisps in my current area offer speeds that are more in line with an EVDO or slow DSL connection.
WiMAX is fairly new technology that is just starting to be deployed. It is seen as the successor to EVDO. Right now Baltimore is one of the few places I’m aware of that has it. I’ve heard of people getting speeds as high as 7 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up. Most users seem to get about half of that with a good signal.
WiMAX sounds like it will have a much lower price point than EVDO without the bandwidth caps and will be marketed as a replacement for a home connection–not just something to use on the road.