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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Weighing In on DSL

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is a technology working hard to catch up to its potential. DSL is popular because of its speed and always-on connections (more about that later). But in a TechTV broadband user survey, the complaints most frequently cited by DSL users were "failure to receive advertised connection speeds and frequent inability to connect to their service." DSL could be great, but it's still getting there.

DSL connects your computer to the Internet by sending high-speed data through copper phone wires. DSL isn't offered everywhere, but phone companies are working hard to add DSL service to their offerings.

Even if your local phone company offers DSL service, you might not get hooked up right away. The number of ports in each of the phone company's central offices determines the number of DSL users the system can support. If no port is available in your area, you won't be able to get DSL service until the company adds more ports, or a current user unsubscribes.

Upload, Download—What's the Dif?

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When you start researching broadband connection options, you'll see speeds rated for uploading and downloading. Those terms refer to the direction of the data transfer through the connection. Data passing from your computer to the Internet is being uploaded; information feeding into your machine from the Internet is being downloaded. The speeds for the two types of transfers are always different, because uploading is slower than downloading. Because most Web activities—from surfing to e-mail—require both actions, both upload and download speeds matter.

DSL Pros and Cons

DSL is becoming one of the most popular Internet connection methods. Some experts predict that by 2002, more than half of all Internet users will receive broadband transmissions, and DSL and cable modem are the two current technology leaders in broadband delivery. Here are some of the good things about DSL:

  • DSL is fast; from most services, you should look for speeds up to 384Kbps for downloads and 128Kbps for uploading.

  • Most DSL connections are "always on" (though some, like Earthlink, use PPPoE or point-to-point protocol over Ethernet, where you're assigned an IP address and have to connect, just as in DUN).

  • DSL works through dedicated lines—no line-sharing or security worries, like those you have with cable modem.

  • Even though DSL works through phone lines, it doesn't tie up yours. You can be online and talk on the phone at the same time, without adding a second line.

Now, take a look at the DSL "dark side":

  • Offerings and services vary, but DSL can be expensive. In addition to the hardware costs, your phone company might charge you a monthly DSL fee (the amount varies, but it's usually between $40 and $50) and a separate ISP charge of $10 or more. Again, the pricing and "packaging" of DSL varies from area to area, so be sure you determine exactly what your DSL deal provides.

  • The farther you live from the phone system's "hub," the less speedy your connection will be.

  • If your system goes down, you might have to wait a long time for service. Many phone companies launched DSL services without knowing how much maintenance and repair the services would require. As a result, they got off to a rocky start, with lots of down time and slow service response. Look for this issue to resolve itself as the systems—and providers—get "broken in."

"Free" DSL Might Not Be

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You might see ads for free DSL, but take a close look at the details of the contract (and they will ask you to sign one). Some services offer free DSL because they pump continuous advertisements onto their subscribers' screens. You'll pay an additional fee if you don't want to be bombarded with ads. Other companies want you to sign up for an extended period—say five years—and charge a hefty fee if you break the contract. Or they might require you to take on additional phone services the company offers in your area. As always, read the fine print before you sign anything. And if it looks too good to be true...well, you know the rest.

Can You Use a DSL Connection?

Most modern home computers can handle DSL with little modification. You need a DSL modem (about $200, but often included free by the provider when you sign a contract) and an Ethernet card (anywhere from $10 to $50) if you don't already have one. In some cases, you still need an ISP. The phone company charges about $10 a month for theirs. Most companies will install your DSL equipment and service for a fee.

Maybe You Don't Want to Install Your Own DSL

Lots of DSL providers encourage new subscribers to install their DSL system, providing a reduced start-up cost and a "self-install" kit that includes instructions, a DSL modem, and a number of microfilters you need to install to keep the DSL signal from interfering with your phones. Those microfilters are important parts of your DSL setup; they also prevent your telephones from interfering with your DSL service.

The problem is that self-install doesn't always work. Problems ranging from poor house wiring to lighting dimmers can slow down or even stop your DSL performance. And you can run into problems getting the special software that DSL demands to run on your computer. If you give in to the self-install "lure," be prepared to spend some time arranging for a service technician visit if you run into problems.

More importantly, you also need to live within three miles or so of a telephone switching station if you want your DSL connection to be at all speedy and reliable. For a basic monthly DSL fee, you should get downloads at about 384 Kbps and uploads at about 128 Kbps. Those speeds work great for most users, but not everyone gets the same speeds.

DSL providers farm the service out to you through a central hub. Users located close to the hub receive great speeds; move on down the line, and the quality of your service degrades. Pack a large number of users on the hub, and you lose even more quality. In other words, you get no guarantee that you'll get the DSL speeds you pay for.

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