The distinctive chatter of a dial-up modem is rapidly becoming a sound of the past as broadband sweeps the globe. It’s no mystery why when you consider the enormous benefits. In the meantime, educate yourself about some technical and physical aspects of connecting to the internet, we have created a few bookmarks for you to ease navigation on the page:
- 1 Save Time
- 2 Save Money
- 3 Convenience
- 4 Additional Services
- 5 Built for Speed
- 6 Broadband Choices
- 7 Future Developments
- 8 Getting Connected
- 9 Faster is Better
- 10 Getting Wired
- 11 Learn About Modems
- 12 Dial-Up Modems
- 13 DSL
- 14 Cable Modems
- 15 Fiber Optic Networks
- 16 Making Business Connections
Broadband operates hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of times faster than a dial-up connection, enabling the speedy transfer of large amounts of data. Downloading a typical song takes a few seconds versus perhaps ten minutes with dial-up; e-mailing digital photos is almost instantaneous.
There are lots of money saving broadband deals to be found. For example, if you are still paying for a home telephone, switching to a Voice Over IP (VoIP) phone can save you enough to offset the additional cost associated with broadband access, particularly if you make a lot of long-distance or international calls.
With broadband you have instant Internet access, 24/7, so you don’t have to connect each time you want to go online–you’re always connected. This makes it easy to access information when you need it, check your e-mail, and even make phone calls over the Internet. Multiple computers can share a broadband connection, a great feature if family members want to be online at the same time.
Once you have high-speed Internet access, a new world of possibilities opens to you, such as telecommuting, video conferencing, and Internet telephony. You can also listen to online radio, watch video-on-demand, even subscribe to live TV without paying for a cable subscription. Dial-up connections simply can’t support these type of data-intensive services.
Built for Speed
While all broadband services make dial-up seem glacial by comparison, not all deliver the same speed. Most broadband services are asymmetric, a fancy term that means that the download speed is faster than the upload speed. But since you will be downloading much more data, such as web pages, music, and video, than you will be sending, your download speed is most critical. Depending on the type of service–cable, DSL, fiber optics, satellite or wireless–and other variables, broadband data speed range from 128 Kbps to a screaming 500 Mbps, and are growing all the time. (Since a three-minute song is about 3 Mb, at the highest speed, you can download it in a fraction of a second–how cool is that?)
Now that you see all the benefits of a high-speed connection, here are some of your options, depending on where you live and service availability.
Switching to a Voice Over IP (VoIP) phone can save you enough to offset the additional cost associated with broadband access.
To access the service, you need a cable modem, which is usually provided as part of the package, possibly for a monthly rental and maintenance fee, or you can purchase your own. If you do purchase your own, make sure to contact your cable provider first to determine which modems meet the requirements for your plan.
DSL, short for Digital Subscriber Line, employs an unused portion of your telephone line, so there’s no need to install another one in your home or office. The service, which is typically provided by your local phone company, can cost from $15 to $50 USD monthly for residential customers. To connect, you need a digital modem, usually provided by the phone company.
At the highest broadband speeds, you can download a three-minute song – about 3 Mb of data – in a fraction of a second.
One of the current drawbacks to DSL is that your actual connection speed can vary considerably, depending on your distance from the local exchange, and DSL may not be available at all if you live more than about three miles (5 kilometers) from an exchange. Those living closest to the local exchange enjoy the fastest speeds. This, of course, is always subject to change as newer technologies are introduced–so even if DSL isn’t possible for you today, it might turn out to be your best option in a few years.
With satellite Internet access, you connect via the same satellite dish you use to receive TV programs. Older satellite services largely offered one-way connections, meaning you download data via satellite, but you must upload via a dial-up phone line; however, most providers now offer two-way connections, so uploads and downloads are both handled through the satellite, and you don’t have to worry about maintaining a second Internet solution.
Though more expensive than other broadband options, satellite internet access remains popular because it is able to provide high-speed access to nearly any location.
Just as bad weather may effect satellite TV reception, the same is true for Internet service. Also, because it takes time for the signal to travel to and from a satellite, you may experience a lag in data transmission, known as latency. In most cases, this is not a problem, except for aficionados of online gaming.
Fiber optic is still largely available only in and around cities, but companies are working to expand the availability as demand rises. Where available, fiber optic networks are blazing fast! Many fiber optic providers offer packages starting at 50 Mbps and going up to 500 Mbps or more. But the real advantage of fiber optics is in the upload speed. Unlike other broadband services, which provide significantly higher download speeds than upload speeds, uploads over fiber optic networks are just as fast as downloads. That’s 10 – 100 times faster than the fastest cable upload speeds.
As more Internet usage transitions away from traditional desktops or laptops and to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, wireless providers are becoming one of the biggest sources of broadband access. Wireless Internet speeds continue to increase, and in many locations are now as fast and faster than many cable and DSL packages. And because the connection is not tied to your home modem, users can take their high-speed connection anywhere they go. However, in rural areas or areas with limited connectivity, speeds can be much lower and connectivity may drop frequently.
In some locations, mobile internet speeds are so fast they now rival DSL and cable broadband internet speeds.
WiFi, which delivers speedy Internet access via radio waves, is typically used in private wireless networks in homes and offices or in public places like airports or cafes. In many cases, such public WiFi is available to use for free. Some cities have even begun to deliver Wide Area Wireless, which is capable of delivering Internet access over large areas, even the entire city.
Most laptops, smartphones, and tablets have built-in wireless adapters, which make connecting easy. While there are many advantages of public WiFi networks, particularly free ones, there are also a number of privacy and security concerns that should be considered. Before you start taking advantage of free WiFi, it’s a good idea to check out our Stay Safe guides.
With a wireless router, you can set up a local wireless network in your home, so that you can use your laptop anywhere you wish. But you will still need Internet access with one of the above options.
Broadband and mobile broadband technology are constantly evolving. With more people using smartphones and tablets to go online, the future of “broadband” as we know it may become all but extinct, or it may simply transition so that our mobile devices provide on-the-go and business access, while our home broadband connection is used for entertainment, security, and telling our house when to turn the heat down.
If you are reading this online, undoubtedly you’re already connected to the Internet. And if you’re lucky, you have a high-speed DSL, cable or wireless connection. For those still tangling with older technology, we offer this admittedly dated information first written in 1996!
Faster is Better
Why does speed matter? On the Internet, you are constantly exchanging data with other computers. Some of these digital files can be quite large, especially for audio and video clips. As you will soon discover, you want this exchange to happen as quickly as possible.
Modems come in different speeds and can be installed on your computer (internal), or connected to your computer’s serial port (external). These days all new computers come equipped with an internal modem. But if you need to buy a modem for an older computer, consider purchasing an external one for two reasons. First, they are much easier to install. Second, occasionally your modem will freeze and needs to be reset. If your modem is external you can simply turn it off and on again. If it’s internal, the only way to reset it is to turn off your computer and reboot, which can take several minutes.
To connect an external modem to your computer, you’ll need a serial modem cable. Most likely, your computer will have a connector on the back labeled serial, or with the IOIOIO icon. This connector comes in two varieties: 9-pin (male) or 25-pin (female). If you only have one of these ports, it will probably be COM1. If you have two, one will be COM1, and the other will be COM2. After you plug in your modem, you can sign up for Internet service.
Usually, your setup program will try and find your modem and its COM port. If it can’t, it will ask you which COM port your modem is attached to. If you don’t know, the easiest thing to do is try them all. Even if you only have two serial ports, you may be able to select one of four COMports. Also, there are some other devices that use the COM ports. In some computers, the mouse is plugged into a serial port. This is known as a serial mouse. If you’ve got a serial mouse plugged into COM1, then just plug the modem into COM2. If you don’t have a second COM port, you can purchase a card that goes inside your computer that will give you a second COM port. If this is necessary, you should check with the manufacturer of your computer.
Your modem will likely have a connector on the back with space for 25pins. You need to make sure that the serial modem cable you purchase has the right number of pins on either side and is the correct “gender.” The best thing to do is to look at the back of your computer and list the various connectors, the number of pins, and the gender. When you go to purchase your modem, find the cable that matches the connector.
Lastly, you’ll need a standard phone cable to connect the modem to your phone line. The standard connector on a telephone cable is called an RJ-11. On the back of your modem, you’ll probably have two RJ-11 jacks. One is for connecting the modem to a wall jack, and the other is for connecting the modem to a telephone.
Learn About Modems
Once upon a time, modems were big, clunky units that sat on the edge of your desk and made a grating, scratchy noise every time you tried to connect to the Internet. Fortunately, those modems are all but gone, replaced by smaller, quieter versions and newer technologies. The Internet is now available through a variety of technologies, from traditional dial-up to high-speed cable connections and blazing fast fiber optics, but regardless of how you connect, chances are there is a modem working somewhere to make that connection possible.
Until the early 21st century, dial-up modems were the most popular method for connecting to the Internet. Dial-up modems connect to an Internet Service Provider using your existing telephone line. Since telephone lines were designed to transmit the human voice, not electronic data from computers, modems have to convert digital computer signals into a form that allows them to travel over phone lines. Those are the scratchy sounds you hear from a modem’s speaker. A modem on the other end of the line understands it and converts the sounds back to digital information that the computer understands.
Most modern modems can send and receive data at a rate of up to 56 Kbps (56,000 bits per second). While significantly faster than modems from two decades ago, they still provide a much slower Internet experience than broadband devices, such as Cable and DSL modems, and are not fast enough to take advantage of the Internet’s growing multimedia content, such as high-quality images, streaming music, and streaming video services. However, simply surfing the web is still possible, albeit frustratingly slow at times.
To compensate for the slower speeds, newer modems feature compression technology, which shrinks the size of web pages before sending them and then decompresses them once they arrive at your computer. Since your computer can decompress much faster than a dial-up modem can download, this can offer noticeable improvements to your viewing speed. Many web browsers also feature tools to speed up webpage load times, many of which involve omitting certain add-ons and multimedia elements, or downloading lower-quality versions of images, since the increasing use of large multi-media files is one of the biggest reasons dial-up has become so slow.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), a high-speed or broadband technology, has become increasingly popular because they offer always-on connection (no more dialing in or tying up your phone line) and speeds are significantly higher than dial-up connections. DSL speeds are usually measured in terms of megabytes per second, which is one million bits of information every second. Current DSL download speeds typically range from 0.5 Mbps to 15Mbps. Uploads range from 128 Kbps – 1Mbps. However, this is poised to change quickly, as many companies are now looking to build gigabit DSL connections, meaning downloads could reach 1 billion bytes per second in the not-to-distant future.
DSL service requires a digital modem and a network card in your computer (or a wireless router and a wireless network card). Prices for equipment, DSL installation and monthly service vary considerably, so check with your local phone company and Internet service provider.
Over the past decade, cable companies have become the go-to Internet service providers, because their infrastructure is capable of handling significantly more bandwidth than most telephone lines. Cable Internet providers offer download speeds ranging from 1.5 Mbps to 100 Mbps (though this is constantly increasing). Upload speeds typically range from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps. Since cable Internet services can reach such high speeds, they are ideal for viewing graphic-heavy webpages, streaming online music, and even viewing movies and television through services such as Netflix and Hulu.
The speeds you can achieve over a cable Internet connection will depend on your provider’s limitations (rural areas will typically have slower speeds, as older lines are not capable of achieving the highest speeds), the plan you purchase (expect to pay considerably more for the highest speeds), and your cable modem. Older cable modems were limited to 10-20 Mbps; while newer models can easily reach 150 Mbps. If you plan on purchasing your own cable modem, make sure to check with your cable provider to determine which modems will work with your selected plan.
Like DSL, cable modems won’t tie up your phone lines and they are always connected. This service is available throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. For an in-depth tutorial, visit How Cable Modems Work.
Fiber Optic Networks
Fiber optic networks are less widespread than DSL or Cable, but where available they offer incredible speeds. Many fiber optic providers offer packages ranging from 50 Mbps to 500 Mbps or more. Unlike other broadband services, which provide significantly higher download speeds than upload speeds, uploads over fiber optic networks are just as fast as downloads.
To access a fiber optic Internet connection, you will usually need to use modems provided by your Internet Service Provider, which can increase your monthly bill by $5 – $10, but it also means your equipment will be replaced for your if it ever needs to be updated.
Making Business Connections
Most businesses require reliable, dedicated Internet connections capable of handling dozens and even hundreds of simultaneously connected devices. Traditional dial-up or even slower-speed DSL services won’t work for most offices. Cable Internet, because it provides and always-on connection and high speeds, can be a good option for many companies. But business that demand significant bandwidth, including companies running their own servers, may require much higher speeds. Business Ethernet services can provide customized solutions for business with speeds ranging from 1-2 Mbps upwards of 1Gbps (1,000 Mbps). The options available to your business will vary largely depending on your location. These services can be significantly more expensive than the other Internet solutions we’ve discussed above, but for companies that need the additional resources, it can be well worth the price.