As the Web becomes ever more laden with graphics, sound, animation and video, the need for speed grows ever greater.
If you use the Web only occasionally, you probably don't need a high-speed modem. But if you regularly use it for research or entertainment, you'll count your lucky megabits the day you get hooked up with a cable or DSL modem.
If you have high-speed access and are forced to return to dial-up access, as I was recently while on a trip, surfing the Web becomes entangling. You're stuck waiting for page after page to download. Using your browser seems like browsing through a magazine with the pages glued together.
For some time now the biggest obstacle to high-speed Internet access, also called broadband access, has been scant availability. Many people who want it can't get it from their local cable or telecommunications companies because of the slow rollout of the underlying infrastructure.
Broadband customers face other problems as well. Partly as a result of the dot-com meltdown, the DSL industry has undergone an implosion, with big names such as Northpoint Communications and Flashcom filing for bankruptcy protection, limiting your choices.
Still, broadband use continues to grow, nearly doubling over the past year, according to market research company Cahners In-Stat. Excite@Home, the largest cable Internet service provider at , is now the second most popular ISP behind AOL, according to StatMarket, another market research firm.
Yet not all people who have high-speed access are happy with it. Broadband service costs roughly two to three times more than dial-up service, and that's a good deal considering that download speeds can be 10 times faster. But some broadband providers, including the well-regarded Earthlink, at , have raised prices recently as much as 25 percent.
Other problems include installation hassles and long wait times for service, which mirror problems encountered in the past with then high-speed ISDN service and cable TV service. Installation is typically much quicker with cable service, taking an average of five days compared to four to six weeks with DSL service, according to DVG Research.
My experiences with both cable and DSL service have been positive. Occasionally the ISP's e-mail or Web server goes down or service goes out completely. But these problems are almost always fixed, without my intervention, in a few hours. Cable access in general is faster, though it slows down more during peak evening hours.
Anecdotally, DSL users seem to report more installation and reliability problems than cable users, though cable users are exposed to more security risks, which makes DSL a better choice for businesses. …