The Elusive Quest for High-Speed Internet Access

Recent industry actions have brought the topic of high-speed Internet access once again to the forefront. With the demise of [email protected], a major provider of bandwidth to cable-modem customers, another adventurous group of early adopters is left in the lurch. To add insult to injury, many of these users have now moved from extremely fast, multimegabit connections back to the joys of trying to get a dial-up modem to connect at faster than 28.8 Kbps.

So what's a user to do? The easy answer is to find another provider, but in most cases, high-speed Internet access is a seller's, not a buyer's, market. Many people have only one option for a local broadband connection. Even when other broadband options are available, are you just jumping from the frying pan to the fire? Will your new provider give decent service, and will it still be in business in 90 days?

The first place to start searching for information about the broadband provider community is the misnamed DSL Reports Web site. I say misnamed because the site has expanded well beyond covering DSL providers: It has an active user community that has a good feel for the broadband world. You can find information about all types of broadband providers: DSL, cable, wireless, and satellite. Check out the site to get some unbiased feedback from users the vendors currently service before you commit to a broadband provider (if you have a choice).

If you're looking for a broadband option that doesn't mortgage your life to one of the landline (phone or cable company) providers, you have limited options. The largest of the broadband wireless providers, Sprint Broadband Direct, has a notice on its Web site that reads "We are suspending our effort to acquire new residential and commercial Sprint Broadband Direct customers. The limitations of the current generation of fixed wireless technology do not allow for an optimum cost structure. Therefore, we will not be acquiring or installing any additional Sprint Broadband Direct customers with the current technology. We will, however, continue to operate and maintain the existing base of Sprint Broadband Direct customers."

It appears that the wireless broadband option isn't viable, which leaves satellite service—either 2-way or dial-return—as the only other non-landline option. At the moment, I'm a satellite user with a DirecPC dial-return system. If I had any other options, I wouldn't have taken this route, but the area where I live has no cable modem or DSL service and no sign of anything appearing soon. The only other service faster than a dial-up modem is ISDN, which is still incredibly expensive if you leave it on for more than 40 hours a month. My satellite service has been moderately reliable, although DirecPC has regular technical glitches that foul up its name servers and mail servers. I'd say the service has an overall 90 percent uptime record for me (which isn't particularly good). At some point, I might try the 2-way satellite service from either DirecPC or a competitor such as Starband, but 2-way satellite service doesn't have a great reputation, and I'm not willing to trade one problem set for another. With my dial-return satellite service, I can get downloads at a transfer rate that's faster than 700Kbps on average, and I often see speeds faster than 1Mbps. Uploads are limited to modem speeds, and Web browsing and email access can be quite a chore because of the high latencies inherent in a satellite connection. But at least the satellite system beats surfing the Web over a dial-up line. And you can install a dial-return system yourself; you can purchase a system from your local electronics retailer and be up and running after you hang the dish, run the cable, and point the unit at the right satellite.

I wish I had an easy answer for your broadband search, but I fear the situation will get worse before it gets better.

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