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The Need For Speed

The technology is out there to reach speeds well beyond the typical dial-up access, so why aren't we using it?

Got Bandwidth? You probably don't--right now, less than 1 million of us use the high-speed Net access technologies aimed at home users, meaning either DSL (digital subscriber line), which downloads data at speeds ranging from 256 Kbps up to 8 Mbps; or cable modem access, which delivers downloads at speeds up to a theoretical 30 Mbps and real-life speeds that tend to be around 3 Mbps. Either way, both are blazing fast compared to 56K modems. DSL routinely works 10 to 20 times faster than a 56K modem, while cable offers the fastest download speeds available to home users--as much as 500 times faster than today's 56 Kbps modems.

So why aren't we hooking up at these blistering speeds? Price isn't the problem. In California, for instance, Pacific Bell provides a DSL line for $39 per month. Tote this up with a $198 equipment cost, and the price isn't dramatically different from buying a new modem and paying a monthly ISP fee plus a phone line charge.

Cable modems are just as inexpensive--monthly rates at leading provider @Home (http://www.home.com) run only $39.95 to $44.95 per month. Installation is priced at $99 to $175, depending on your local cable company. (Sometimes it's deeply discounted during promotions.)

Availability is the rub that's stopping our embrace of these technologies. Tech news source CNet Inc. (http://www.cnet.com) estimates that fewer than 50,000 U.S. homes now have DSL, offered by both traditional phone companies and ISPs, neither of which has moved aggressively to spread the technology. Probably the most ambitious rollout sees phone company SBC (http://www.sbc.com) promising DSL availability by the end of the year to some 8.4 million homes in regions served by Southwestern Bell, Pacific Bell and Nevada Bell. Live elsewhere? Check with your local phone company to see when it plans to offer DSL--but don't be surprised if answers are vague. Most phone companies have been slow to invest in the infrastructure required to make DSL a viable option.

As for cable modems, CNet pegs the user base at around 500,000. Ninety-five percent of the market is controlled by just two providers--Home and Road Runner (http://www.rr.com)--and rollout has been slow, again because big bucks are required to lay down the infrastructure. Only scattered metropolitan dots are currently served, and nobody's predicting when your town will see cable modems.

So the question becomes, does speed matter? Despite all the buzz about a bandwidth shortfall, the answer is probably "nope." If most of your Net connectivity revolves around e-mail--and that's still true for most users--even a 28.8 modem is plenty fast for shuttling tiny e-mail files into cyberspace. If you do normal Web surfing--checking sites like HomeOfficemag.com for instance--56K will do fine. Where bandwidth is crucial is when you're manipulating huge files (1 MB or more) or routinely accessing multimedia sites. Avoid bulky files like those prone to music sites, and however you get to the Net is probably fast enough.

Freebie of the month: EditPad

Don't suffer the inadequacies of Windows' built-in NotePad--it's an anemic program with frustrating limitations, both on ability and file sizes. Upgrade to the dandy EditPad, a tiny download (280K) that delivers huge improvements. It can be toggled to replace NotePad and automatically opens any "txt" files. Some big plusses: EditPad can open multiple files simultaneously for easy cutting and pasting, doesn't put limits on file sizes and handles a number of file types in addition to txt (including some Mac and Unix files).

Why is it free if it's so good? Well, there is a small price--author Jan Goyvaerts requests that satisfied users send him a postcard. "If everyone would say 'thank-you' when someone else said or did something nice," he explains, "this world would be a much better place." Get EditPad at http://www.jgsoft.com

Robert McGarvey works out of his home office in Santa Rosa, California, where neither DSL nor cable modem is available. When he travels, he uses a PowerBook with a built-in 33.6 modem.

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