Internet Connectivity: More Than You Need to Know, but reading through this may save you a few bucks!

By Roy Cohen

Those of us who live in the Houston-Galveston metro area have several choices of access to the internet.  Seems like yesterday we were hooking up our pc’s internal or external modems to the phone line and the pc was dialing in to connect up with the internet at a blazing speed of approximately 56,000 bits per second!  Since each “byte” or character is 8 bits, that’s about 7000 bytes, or characters per second.  That speed was ok for transmitting text email and a text document.  I can remember spending all day downloading the contents of 7 floppy diskettes back in 1998.  Not fun.

AOL built its business on dialup service, as well as privately accessed exclusive content.  You can find most of that special content openly on the world wide web today (ever wonder what www stands for in an internet address or “URL” (universal record locator)?  Now you know!

Long about 1999 access to the internet changed in Houston.  Cable Modem service from your local cable tv provider (initially Time Warner) became available to the masses that spring, as did DSL Service (Digital Subscriber Line) from what was then Southwestern Bell Telephone, later to become SBC Communications, which ultimately bought out the old AT&T). After that they changed their name to AT&T.

Speed on the internet has two components:  “Downstream” (the data coming to you) and “Upstream” (the data you send out).  Consumer high speed internet connectivity is engineered so that the capacity to send data to YOU is far larger than the capacity for you to SEND data to the internet.  The techies call this “asymmetical” service.  Why is it engineered this way?  Officially, it is because of the data intensity of things you want to do with the internet:  View YouTube and other videos.  Stream music.  Look at detailed photographs and drawings.  All of these items are usually huge data files that have to get to your computer quickly in order for you to have the user experience you expect.  In the early days of high speed, most internet service providers and communications carriers figured all YOU’D send out from YOUR computer was a mouse click of a byte or two, telling a distant web server what to serve you.  Some of those carriers, which are communications behemoths, also saw the opportunity to serve you valuable content, often for a price. 

As much as big companies say they do, they don’t always appreciate competition, expecially millions of potential competitors.  That is what might have happened if upstream speed were as good as downstream speed.  Even you, from your home, could set up web server service and host websites.  Microsoft Windows actually has that capability built in, although it is rarely turned on in a consumer pc. You, too, could be a YouTube (although you wouldn’t have the capacity for a gazillion users to look at your super home produced godzilla movie).  Your contract with your ISP may even prohibit you from offering web services on their IP address they provide you.  And usually that IP (Internet protocol) address is “dynamic”.  Dynamic means your cable modem “leases” or “borrows” an available address from your ISP, and that address changes every so often.  Same thing happens in your residence when you connect multiple pc’s to a router to get to the cable modem.  Since the IP address isn’t a constant but instead varies, a web server at home isn’t practical from a technical viewpoint.  Fixed IP addresses are available, but they cost extra from an ISP.

Our newsletter this month highlights cable modem service from your local cable tv provider.  Next month we’ll take a look at DSL and other high speed consumer connectivity offerings.

Cable modem service in Houston began with approximately 1.5 megabits per second downstream capability.  Upstream capabilty came with one quarter to three quarters of that speed, depending on the design of the cable segment where your cable modem resided.  Today, downstream speeds in excess of 6 megabits per second (mbps) are common, and your cable company offers various speed tiers with pricing tiers to match.

However, please note that for cable modem service and other consumer internet connectivity services, carriers DO NOT GUARANTEE SPEED otherwise known as BANDWIDTH.  There is NO Service Level Agreement in place when you sign up for residential high speed connectivity.  The service provided by a cable company is SHARED service.  Your data doesn’t ride on its own private pipe to the cable company’s facilities.  It shares space on the cable with other subscribers.  Ever wonder  why your internet service may slow down at noon and again around 4pm in the afternoon until about 7pm?  At noon a lot of workers get a lunch break and access email and other personal internet services.  And later in the day the children come home from school and start downloading music, movies, and all sorts of other stuff, which tend to clog the pipe between you and the “head end” at the cable company.

Advantages to cable modem service?
1. High speed and somewhat less exposure to service interruption
2. Generally a term contract is not required

Disadvantage:
Shared connectivity means others may “hog bandwidth” and while doing so, slow your internet speed temporarily.

One last point about cable modem service that could save you some bucks:  the major cable carrier in the Houston market charges you rental for the cable modem they provide you.  The cost is about four dollars per month. You’ll find the charge in the details on your monthly bill.   The dirty little secret is that you are NOT REQUIRED to rent a cable modem from them.  A modern, latest protocol modem retails for $80-$100, and Awesome Computer Help can install that modem for you.  All that is required is to inform the cable company of the “MAC ADDRESS”, a unique identifier label for the device.  That way the cable company can communicate with the cable modem that YOU own.  I installed my own cable modem almost five years ago and it still works great.  I’ve saved over $100 over that time in cable modem rental fees.

Please note that cable modem standards and protocols change to allow for higher speeds and other capabilities, which means you might at some point need to replace that modem with one that handles newer protocol versions.

That’s all for this month on Internet Connectivity.

Next month:  DSL from your local telephone company and Uverse from AT&T.

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Roy Cohen is a General Technician for Awesome Computer Help covering Meyerland, Sugar Land, SW Houston, and areas surrounding.  He will stop “The Cloud” from raining on You.

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