Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Bigger Pipes: The Cable Modem

April 2000

By Mike Gould

WWW - That's the World Wide Wait, right? Looking for that perfect birthday present, you click on the link to the site your son told you about (hatsonbackwards.com), and you w a i t... until finally you see a splendid picture of whatever. What the hey, I hear you think, I just got that spiffy new 56K modem; doesn't that make me the king of the Web?

Nope, Sorry
What you have there is a shiny new faucet that you can only turn on to a trickle. That alluring 56K speed designation is a best-of-all-possible-worlds statistic, heavily dependent on how good your phone wires are. Most people are lucky to get in at 50K; I was lucky to get 48K back when I was using such a modem.

Speed on the InfoBahn is measured in bytes per second; 50K means 50 thousand bytes per second. This sounds like a lot, but like most stats relating to the Web, figures are deceiving. The point is that with an ordinary modem, your connection speed is going to be less than delightful. You have a small pipe (your plain old telephone line) connecting to a big pipe (the Internet itself). So what is the concerned Internet user to do?

Get a Bigger Pipe There are currently two main ways to improve your Internet plumbing, both via existing information conduits into your house or office: cable TV (cable modem) and telephone (ISDN or DSL). Here we will address the cable modem; next time, DSL.

The cable modem has a theoretical speed limit of 256K, nearly 5 times faster than a modem using POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service, as we Web wonks are prone to put it). With a cable modem behind your computer, you will believe a computer can fly. I got one at home two months ago and I am one very happy surfer. So how does one get one, I hear you ask?

Location, Location, Location
A few requirements: 1.) You have to have cable service, and it has to be the right kind of cable service. MediaOne is feverishly re-wiring Ann Arbor, and since I live about a mile away from their main office, I got lucky and qualified early. If cable crews have been to your neighborhood and you have a largish gray plastic box hanging on your house, you may already be a winner. Contact MediaOne for details.

You want the two-way service; this provides fast uploading (sending email and posting items on your website) as well as fast downloading. Some neighborhoods have an older, hybrid service; downloading is fast, but uploading happens via a conventional modem connection. A friend of mine has this and has had endless problems with it.

If you live in a rural setting, you may have a problem; it may be years before the cable folks make it out to you. There are also satellite services available: check with your local providers. A client of mine uses this; he pays around $33 a month and reports varied success with it. It provides a fast download, but relies on a regular modem for uploads. It also works best with large files, such as downloading big business reports from home offices at the end of the day. For smaller files, such as regular Web pages, the download time is about the same as he was getting from a 56K modem.

2.) You need a computer with EtherNet capability. Any modern computer has this; it has been built into Macs for the last 6 years or so, and can be added to any PC that has a PCI slot available for a networking card. The cable company will be happy to sell you a card for $40 or so.

3.) You need more money (you just knew this was coming). The current cost is around $40 a month, in addition to your regular cable fees. The good news is that if you are a Web developer or use email for business purposes, you may be able to write this off as a business expense. Check with your tax preparer.

So What's the Down Side?
This service is aimed at households equipped with one computer; you are presumably a business with several computers, all of which need online access. Households are wired for Cable, most businesses are not. What to do?

Well, some businesses are wired for cable. I have an associate who runs her company in Plymouth from one Mac tied to a cable modem, and loves it. It is not only much faster in Internet behaviors, it is also more reliable than her old 56K modem ever was.

One Computer, One Connection
But let's say you run your small business from your home, where you have 3 or 4 computers hooked up to a LAN and want to get them onto that gray box on the side of the house. The problem is that MediaOne uses a system called DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to assign you an IP address. This address identifies you as a node on the Internet and makes Internet behavior possible. The catch is that MediaOne assigns this IP number to a number hard-wired into your network card, called a MAC number or hardware address. If you have more than one computer to hook up, the cable modem won't work because each computer has its own unique MAC number.

The work-around is to install a box called a router between your cable modem and the hub linking your computers together. This is geek-deep and not for novices, and also not supported by the cable company. I've never heard of anyone getting kicked off cable for using one, but MediaOne won't help you with it if it breaks.

MediaOne has been threatening for years to get into the business ISP biz, so this may all improve soon. The coming onslaught of DSL from the phone company will force MediaOne to get more competitive really fast, and that is the topic of next month's article. See you then.

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