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The Comcast Cable Modem Adventure [Secure eReader]
eBook by John Landahl

eBook Category: Technology/Science
eBook Description: Thinking of switching to broadband for home Internet access, but uncertain whether to choose cable modem service, DSL or ISDN? Concerned about technical problems you may encounter in doing so? My research and logic as an information technology professional making this choice under time pressure may help! This account chronicles the frustrations and rewards our family encountered while switching to AT&T Broadband's cable modem service (subsequently superseded by its "attbi" service and now acquired by Comcast) and afterward. Includes a hyperlinked glossary of technical terms plus a hyperlinked Internet troubleshooting guide.

eBook Publisher: InfoStrategist.com/InfoStrategist.com
Fictionwise Release Date: December 2004

1 Reader Ratings:
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An Alarming Development

On Saturday morning, August 4, 2001, the business section of The Seattle Times carried an article headlined "Metricom to Shut Down Ricochet Network." This news had immediate implications for our household, since we had for three years been using a Ricochet wireless modem for Internet access. (The now-obsolete Ricochet modem had maintained a continuous 28.8 kbps connection to Metricom's microcellular packet radio network, providing a dynamic, i.e., temporary, IP address to a humble WebRamp minirouter connected to our modest home 10BaseT Ethernet network.)

I had been vaguely aware from earlier news reports that Metricom was having financial problems, but I hadn't realized that they were of such magnitude. After breakfast I checked Metricom's Web site and, sure enough, found a message there stating that Metricom had entered Chapter 11 on August 2 and would shut down the Ricochet network on Wednesday, August 8.

Although the statement indicated that the shutdown would be orderly and it appeared that there was some hope that a buyer would emerge who would continue to operate the network, I obviously needed to make immediate arrangements to subscribe to another Internet service provider, or ISP.

The Telephone Modem Option

For e-mail, our family had from the outset elected to subscribe to America Online rather than using Ricochet's e-mail service (a decision that we would eventually reassess after switching to broadband). This meant that the fastest solution would be to change our AOL subscription from "bring your own connection" to full service, which allows telephone modem access. Since we were already using AOL e-mail, there would be no problems of transferring address books and so forth. The big drawback here was that, between my Web browsing, my wife Nancy's intensive use of AOL e-mail, and our daughter's recently having discovered Neopets.com, our single telephone line would be tied up for an inordinate amount of time each day.

A second drawback was that our only 56 kbps modem was the internal one in our Mac iBook. This meant that, unlike an external modem, it could not be connected to the WebRamp to provide shared network access. Even though the expense would not be great, I was reluctant to invest in an external 56 kbps modem when other alternatives were available because of my prior experience with finicky modem connections.

I considered trying to use our iBook with its internal modem in combination with Vicom's SurfDoubler software to provide shared network access, but soon discarded that idea. My experiments with software IP routers several years before had led me at the time to purchase a hardware router (the WebRamp) to achieve acceptable networking performance.

Even assuming that current software running on newer hardware would solve the earlier performance problems, the problem of tying up the telephone line remained. We could always add a second telephone line, but that would provide only 56 kbps Internet access. The expense needed to be compared to that for a higher-bandwidth alternative such as DSL. (I was already resigned to paying for ISP service, having just watched several local free ISPs retrench or go belly up because their advertising revenues had abruptly dried up after the "dot-com meltdown" the previous year.)

The DSL Option

My long-term plan had been to move to home DSL at some point (Ricochet's then-newly offered 128 kbps service had been too expensive, in my opinion, and evidently also in that of numerous other consumers, unfortunately). However, I was also vaguely aware from the business news that smaller West Coast DSL providers had been experiencing financial problems of their own. Covad, for example, had been laying off employees, and Northpoint had shut down entirely, "orphaning" its dismayed customers.

Even if a DSL provider was in no danger of shutting down, staff reductions would likely delay installation and adversely impact customer service. A quick look through the August issue of a regional computer magazine revealed that smaller DSL providers weren't purchasing much display advertising. I noted that Speakeasy in particular, which had been conducting a saturation advertising campaign the previous summer, was now conspicuous by its absence.

Smaller Seattle-area DSL providers included Northwest Link and SeaNet as well as Speakeasy. I checked the Web sites of each to get an idea of pricing. I rapidly determined that it would take careful comparison of the various DSL and ADSL service plans and auxiliary charges (e.g., for data transfer above a certain volume per month), to see whether, for example, a $59.95/month plan actually made more sense for us than a $49.95/month plan with additional charges for high levels of usage.

Larger DSL providers serving the local area were QWest and Verizon. Verizon, however, had also been in the business news recently due to major layoffs, again raising the question of responsiveness.

With both, there was always the argument that you get better service from a company focusing exclusively on DSL than from one for whom it is a sideline. QWest's Web site indicated that installation would require 15-45 days – much longer than we wanted to wait.

And installation might be complicated by the fact that our vintage 1914 house did not already have multiple telephone cables, as many newer homes do. Suppose that for some reason the unused wiring pair in our ancient telephone cable could not be placed in service and a new cable had be installed? No doubt there would be additional delay and expense.

No matter which DSL provider we chose, it appeared that we would need to purchase a DSL modem for around $250, plus an IP gateway router or switch for a minimum of $100-150 to allow shared access to the DSL connection.

Initial Conclusion

Home DSL needed more research. I would need to talk to friends familiar with the local providers about their current service and their financial prospects. No matter which one we chose, chances were that installation would take weeks or even months.

Copyright © 2004 John Landahl

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