Ask that nice man...

How Can I Make The Internet Run Faster?

Hello Niceman,

I enjoy using the Internet, but I hate waiting for pages to load.  Isn't there an affordable way to get a high-speed Internet connection?

This is not an actual question e-mailed to That Nice Man, but I thought you might be curious about my answer anyway.
The Internet seems faster on my friend's machine than on mine.  Why is that?
  The apparent speed of the Internet -- or rather the "latency" or lag in response when downloading pictures or other large blocks of data -- varies greatly, depending on:
  1. the money spent by the Web site owners for their connectivity;
  2. the popularity of the Web page you're viewing;
  3. the number of hops the data must take on its way from the Web site host to you;
  4. the time of day and general traffic conditions on-line;
  5. the breadth of the connection to your home computer;
  6. the speed rating of your modem; and
  7. the speed rating of your computer.

All of these factors are important, and the narrowest bit of pipe in the path is what limits you.  If you are browsing the Intel web site late at night, the limiting factor is probably your phone connection (e) and your modem (f), but if you are looking at a free porn site in Sweden, factors (a), (b) and (c) will make the site seem slow no matter what you are using on your end.  

Unless you have a very old computer indeed, (g) is rarely a limiting factor -- your aging Pentium 120 will load a basic Web page just as fast as your buddy's 500 MHz PIII wunderkind. 

So some kinds of lag are beyond my control, I understand.  But surely I can do something to get faster response from a fast site.
  Commercial web sites have a very strong incentive to run as fast as possible.  And the infrastructure of the Internet is being upgraded by leaps and bounds daily.  That shifts the burden back to you:  for most home viewers, a faster modem and a faster connection to the Internet means faster Web browsing.  

Nowadays all major ISPs support connecting at a speed known as "56k"(This theoretically means you can transfer 56,000 bits of data per second, but in practice it means nothing of the kind.  It's just a number, OK?)  This speed standard is also known as V.90.  

If for some reason your modem bears a lower number, like 33k or 28,000 or even less, then your Internet experience will seem quite sluggish.  It will be worth your money to buy a new modem.

The V.90 or 56k standard is the fastest speed possible using an ordinary dial-up phone connection and modem.  If that isn't fast enough for you, you are not alone.

There are many new options available for high-speed Internet Access.  For home users, prices start at about $40 per month for DSL (plus up to $200 for installation and hardware).  Expect to pay about $60 monthly for a cable-modem or satellite link.  Businesses may pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month for their Internet access.  

Yes... what about DSL?
  Many users in urban areas now have the option to order a Digital Subscriber Line ("DSL") from a telephone company.  This has many advantages for the Internet user:  your connection is "always on" (which means less waiting), it rides on top of your voice connections (which means no paying for a second phone line for your computer), and it's very, very fast.  

Usually the phone company (e.g. Pacific Bell) can offer you a cheap Internet account with their own ISP (e.g. Pacific Bell Internet), but if you want you can instead connect to one of the other ISPs that have made suitable arrangements with the phone company.   Or you can place your order with a DSL-ready ISP, and let them deal with the phone company to order your DSL connection.  

Nowadays, the largest telephone company isn't the only choice, but it may dominate your market.  Here in San Francisco, many ISPs offer DSL service, but once you sign up you discover that it is Pacific Bell providing the connectivity.  If you want to find a genuinely competitive provider, you'll have to search a bit.  

My own experience with Pacific Bell is mixed:  Everyone I know who uses it agrees with me that the service itself is fine.  But we have all experienced nightmares of delays and miscommunication when trying to schedule the bloody installation.  

What about Cable Modems?  What about satellite services?

There are several other consumer-priced high-speed options.

Cable modems share copper with your cable television service.  Since that is a coaxial cable, instead of just two twisted wires, it can carry a great deal more data than a phone line.  

On the other hand, the twisted pair of wires connects you directly to your phone company's central switch, while the braided coaxial cable is shared by everyone in your neighborhood.  So cable modem speeds can vary widely depending on how many people in your neighborhood use them.  

For up-to-date information about these options, just ask!

But what do you recommend now?
  Frankly, 56k is plenty for ordinary home use.  The time you save with a faster connection, you would simply waste with more browsing, so what have you really gained?

Once you've been spoiled by speed you will want to keep it.  DSL is certainly affordable these days, and a bargain for home users compared to what businesses pay for leased dedicated lines that are not all that much faster.

DSL is worth its weight when time is of the essence: if you like movie trailers and video clips and high-quality live music, if you retrieve large binary files for work or play, if you like to browse newsgroups in real-time, etc.  

Home-grade DSL is "asymmetrical", meaning that you don't get all that extra speed on data flowing "upstream" from your computer to others.  So it may not be completely satisfactory for applications like videoconferencing or hosting your own Web site.  

The main thing I would recommend is not to sign any long-term contracts that lock you into any one provider or technology.  Fiber optic cable to the home may be closer than we think...  Now that will be fast!

[Still mostly true, 12/31/05There is a lot more multimedia content available on the Web than when I wrote this, so the typical home user will now probably be unsatisfied with dial-up.  Prices have dropped some, and AOL is now DSL-friendly, but scheduling a DSL installation is still a nightmare.]