You've been thinking about upgrading your poky, old-fashioned dial-up Internet connection, but you've been hearing nothing but static: High-speed lines are tough to get, near-impossible to get installed, and incredibly expensive. Not to mention incredibly confusing. Should you double (or is that quadruple?) your current 56-kbps connection by getting a separate ISDN line installed? Do you wait for one of those new cable modems you've been hearing about? Do those mini-satellite dishes that collect both TV images and high-speed Internet data really work? And what's that deal with all those "Red Means Go" billboards?
Then, once you decide which sort of "pipeline" to jack into, what about your Internet service provider? Can you stick with your current ISP, or will you have to switch? Can you still use AOL?
It's all enough to drive a Netizen nutty. Fortunately, the high-speed-Internet-access market is rapidly consolidating, and options for consumers are coming into tighter focus. Your options:
Most computers that have shipped with modems in the past year communicate at a theoretical maximum speed of 56 kilobits per second, though your own dial-up modem may be much slower (it might, for instance, be rated at 28.8 kbps or 14.4 kbps, which are respectively one half and one fourth as fast as 56-kbps modems). Enter ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines, which Bell Atlantic (bellatlantic.com; 800-get-isdn) has been marketing heavily over the past few months. An ISDN setup at your home allows you to access the Internet at speeds of up to 128 kbps and is available to all Bell Atlantic customers in the five boroughs.
Here's how it works: An ISDN line utilizes three so-called channels. The two B channels carry voice, data, and video at 64 kbps apiece. If you are only surfing the Internet, the combined speed will be 128 kbps, though if you make or receive a phone call, one of the B channels will switch to voice, thereby slowing your connection speed down to 64 kbps. ISDN is pay-per-use, and billing is a bit tricky: There's a monthly base fee, plus per-minute charges for each B channel on your line (1 cent per minute). For installation of a new line, the start-up charge is $113.22 plus labor ($102.78 for the first hour of work and $45.68 per half-hour thereafter -- God have mercy on the souls of the bureaucrats who came up with those to-the-penny prices), and you'll be charged $13.71 for every 100 feet of wire that stretches from the telecommunications closet in your building to your apartment. (We're not making this stuff up.)
To set up your ISDN connection, Bell Atlantic will have to either convert your existing phone line or install a new one. Conversion is cheaper, since no labor charges are assessed and no physical work is done in the residence. The cost: $94.30 to switch a line from analog to ISDN.
The good thing about ISDN: You can get it right now; there used to be waiting lists. And ISDN service in the city has stabilized considerably, according to the ISDN users we've talked to (one East Village user who used to complain about frequent "drops" -- getting disconnected without warning -- now speaks of much steadier connections). The bad thing about ISDN: Its days may be numbered. With DSL (digital subscriber lines -- see below) gradually entering the high-speed fray, ISDN's "high speed" suddenly doesn't look all that speedy anymore. Telcos, including Bell Atlantic, will presumably continue to offer ISDN for years to come, so it's not like your ISDN modem is suddenly going to be obsolete. But if you don't need to step up to a quicker connection immediately, you might consider waiting a bit for DSL -- or considering one of the other options mentioned below.
Internet service providers for ISDN in both the 718 and 212 area codes include UUNET Technologies (www.uu.net), TunaNet (www.tuna.net), and SpaceLab.Net (www.spacelab.net). Digital Telemedia (www.dti.net), eclipse Internet (www.eclipse.net), and bway.net (www.bway.net) are among several that serve 212 only.
Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL)
The beautiful thing about DSL is that you never actually have to dial up. Get DSL in your home, and you're jacked into the Internet 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at speeds that are eleven times faster than 56k and five times faster than ISDN. You start up your PC and initiate your connection, and -- shazam! -- no more waiting for the World Wide Web.
A feature added to your home telephone line, and therefore requiring less labor to set up than ISDN, DSL grants each subscriber his own dedicated connection (also unlike cable modems) and allows users to talk on the phone or fax with no loss of Internet-connection speed. As with ISDN and cable connectivity, you need a special modem, but industry observers are predicting that it may not be long before computers come equipped with internal DSL modems.
Sound great? Well, it is. Except that DSL is probably not yet available in your neighborhood. DSL, it turns out, is distance-sensitive, so Bell Atlantic needs to equip local phone stations throughout the city with special equipment, station by station.
Bell Atlantic (www.bellatlantic.com; 877-525-ADSL) is now testing digital subscriber lines in a Manhattan trial run (we talked to one lucky guinea pig who is thrilled with the service) and will roll out its Infospeed-brand DSL in May, according to spokeswoman Joan Rasmussen. Initial installation charges are $198 (including the modem), and unlimited-use service options run $49.95 a month for 640 kbps (the best bet for residential use), $99.95 a month for faster 1.6-mbps speed service, or $189.95 a month for shockingly fast 7.1-mbps service. BellAtlantic.net service comes bundled with the price and serves as your Internet service provider -- though you can choose any ISP as long as it's DSL-capable (check with your current provider; at some point, all ISPs are going to have to be DSL-capable, though many still aren't).
Bell Atlantic's recent deal with America Online to make DSLs available to its millions of subscribers brings together a telephone company and the market leader of traditional Internet access. According to spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg, America Online plans to start offering DSL service in the summer, as a premium upgrade -- the cost will be approximately $20 above AOL's current $21.95 flat-rate standard dial-up service.
Prism Communication Services (www.redconnect.net; 888-RED-2000), the progenitor of the "Red Means Go" campaign that has deluged the airwaves and New York City public spaces (most notably Bell Atlantic phone kiosks), is the metro area's DSL upstart. Prism's DSL product, Red, was launched on January 31 and offers a speed of up to 640 kbps at $79.95 a month for a one-year commitment. Bundled in the price is rental and maintenance of the DSL modem. Initial installation is $299.95.
Premium service called Red Single goes for $149.95 for a one-year commitment and offers speeds of up to 1 mbps. With either "Red" or "Red Single," Prism serves as the Internet Service Provider. (The service currently does not support outside ISPs.)
Red has more than 1,500 customers in the New York metropolitan area, most of whom are in Manhattan, says spokeswoman Debra Niewald. Red service is most readily available below 59th Street -- installation elsewhere in the city could involve a wait or at least several months.
Other DSL options are essentially middlemen: By leasing Bell Atlantic circuitry and acting as DSL wholesalers to seventeen Internet service providers -- including Digital Telemedia (www.dti.net), Flashcom (www.flashcom.com), and Concentric Network (www.concentric.net) -- NorthPoint Communications (www.northpoint.net) provides digital-subscriber-line service, as does Covad Communications (www.covad.com), with more than 30 partnered ISPs and service available in New York City.
You want high-speed access through your cable-TV line? Well, if you're a Time Warner customer, hurry up . . . and wait. Time Warner, which supplies cable television to 1.1 million subscribers in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and parts of Brooklyn, has yet to roll out Internet access through cable modems. The company is in the midst of a five-year, $400 million upgrade to fiber-optic lines. The result will be more bandwidth for fast Internet access as well as more cable channels, according to Gerri Warren-Merrick, spokeswoman for Time Warner Cable. Merrick says Time Warner will begin testing its cable-modem service in late 1999; there's no date set for rollout.
Time Warner's neighbor, Cablevision, which serves up cable to more than 500,000 homes on Long Island as well as in the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn, has hatched its own cable-modem service, Optimum Online (www.optimumonline.com; 516-390-9040). Optimum has more than 13,000 subscribers on Long Island, says Kate Murphy, spokeswoman for Cablevision. Optimum's service is not available yet for Bronx and Brooklyn subscribers.
An upstart in the world of telecommunications and Internet access, RCN Corporation negotiates agreements with large buildings to offer its telephone, cable-television, and Internet-access package. RCN has wired 600 buildings in Manhattan and a handful in Queens, says spokesman Jim Maiella (call 800-ring-rcn, or surf to www.rcn.com for more information).
DirecPC (www.direcpc.com; 800-direcpc), a satellite-based Internet-access service, falls between ISDN and DSL in terms of speed. Offered by Hughes Network Systems, DirecPC downloads from the Net by satellite at speeds of up to 400 kbps but uploads via your phone line. It requires an IBM-compatible computer running Windows 95 or 98, a 28.8-kbps modem or better, and an "unobstructed line of sight to the south from your home or office," according to DirecPC's Website. (Macintosh users cannot use this service.)
The DirecPC setup includes a satellite dish on your roof and a cable from the dish to a so-called PCI card in your computer. You can use your own ISP, provided that it uses point-to-point protocol or TCP/IP (ask them) -- which excludes America Online (unless you get an IP address from AOL), Prodigy, and CompuServe. The satellite dish and PCI card cost $299 -- there's a $100 rebate through June 30 -- and installation is $249. If you install your own PCI card, the price is $179. Monthly service, if you use DirecPC as your ISP, is $29.99 for 25 hours, plus $1.99 for each additional hour. (The $49.95 activation fee is waived through June 30 as well.)