Mac Musings

Broadband Internet Access: Picking the Right Speed

Daniel Knight - 2004.05.12

I think my first modem was a 300 baud one for my Commodore 64. Next came a 1200 bps modem in my 8 MHz Zenith PC. When I got a modem for my Mac Plus, it ran at 2400 bps.

The next step beyond that was a 14.4 modem back in the days when I used AOL. I thought I was in connection heaven! And a few years later, I moved to a 56k modem on my 20 MHz Centris 610. For about a year I had 128 kbps ISDN at home, but then cable modems came to Grand Rapids. I've been using a shared cable Internet connection at home for years and loving it.

But these days I go back and forth between my home office and my apartment, where the only reason I even have a telephone line is so I can use a dialup modem. Cable modems are not an option in this apartment complex, and SBC wants a one-year commitment before they'll give you their $27 ADSL rate. My lease is for six months.

So I've been connecting my PowerBook G4 and Dell OptiPlex to the Internet with 56k modems (and sometimes sharing the connection with both machines - gotta love the sharing features in OS X and Windows 98!). It's a lot slower than cable, which can reach speeds of 1 Mbps. Even with booster software (Turbo Internet on the Mac [for OS X and the classic Mac OS], Naviscope on the Dell, which also blocks some ads), I'm averaging a 50% throughput boost. It really is an improvement, and the price is right (both are freeware), but it's still poky compared with cable.

Faster Times Ahead

Come the end of the month, my wife and I are renting a two-bedroom apartment in another complex that offers tiered cable modem service. (Under terms of our divorce, we'll be alternating two weeks in the house with the boys and two weeks in the apartment.) As with most high-speed services, upload and download speeds are not the same - which makes sense for most of us, since we tend to download a lot more content than we upload.

The question is which service package to choose. They're all much faster than a 56k connection and most are slower than cable at home, but which offers the best mix of price and throughput?

Here are the packages WMIS offers apartment dwellers:

  1. 192k download, 128k upload, $24.95
  2. 384k download, 192k upload, $34.95
  3. 768k download, 256k upload, $44.95
  4. 1.5M download, 320k upload, $64.95

More speed isn't a bad thing, but it comes down to a question of how much is enough. For instance, a 56k modem might have an average download speed of 40-44 kbps and upload speed of 20-24 kbps. Even the "lite" package offers 5-6x the upload speed and nearly 5x the download speed.

That will be an improvement over dialup, but how will it compare with cable at home? I suspect it will feel a bit slower, that the 384/192 package would feel nearly as fast, and that with the higher bandwidth bundles bottlenecks on the Internet itself might be more likely to limit performance than the cable connection.

A few years ago the average end-to-end speed on the Internet was something on the order of 128 kbps, and this doubles every two years or so, making today's Internet somewhere in the 384-768k range, so jumping to 1.5M service would probably be a waste.

I'll know more in June, and because WMIS can upgrade service with a phone call, there's really no risk signing up for the slowest service. If it's not comfortably fast, I can move to the next level for just $10 more, and it that's still too slow, well $10 more should give me all the speed I could ever need.

Wireless Internet

I'm starting to understand the attraction of wireless Internet. If you can connect using a standard AirPort (802.11b) card, you're dealing with 5 Mbps total bandwidth - and AirPort Extreme (802.11g) has the potential to get your connection into the 23 Mbps range if you're close enough to the transceiver. (These are a bit less than half the advertised figures, but it is the real world limit on data throughput.)

This also explains why using "outdated" 802.11b technology isn't a real bottleneck for Internet access - only the fastest, most expensive, dedicated services offer enough bandwidth that AirPort would be the bottleneck.

I'm definitely hooking up a wireless hub in the apartment so I can use my PowerBook and my wife can use her iBook without running any ethernet cables.


Just as 20 MHz computers once seemed fast but appear outdated today, 56k modems will do in a pinch but pale in the face of DSL and cable modems.