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 (www.home.net), the largest cable Internet service provider (ISP), 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 (www.earthlink.com), 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.
With either cable or DSL service, however, it's smart to take security precautions, including using a firewall program such as the well-regarded ZoneAlarm (www.zonelabs.com). The software is still free despite the accelerating elimination of other free Internet products and services. A beefed-up pay version, ZoneAlarm Pro, makes sense if your PC is a part of a local-area network.
The desirability of high-speed Internet service in the minds of some has translated into its necessity, particularly for lower-income people who want it but can't afford it. A number of advocacy groups and industry organizations contend that being a fully participating member of society requires broadband access to the Internet.
Some of the computer industry's biggest companies, including IBM, Intel and Motorola, are lobbying for legislation that would subsidize broadband in inner city and rural areas. Grand comparisons are being made to the building of the interstate highway system, the rural electric system and even putting a man on the moon.
Despite the hyperbole, the argument for widespread broadband access to the Internet is compelling. But as with all government intervention in the marketplace, care needs to be taken to prevent this from becoming a boondoggle.
In the meantime, work in the private sector continues on access and even higher-speed Internet service.
DirecPC (www.direcpc.com) recently introduced its Satellite Return service, which lets you both download data from a satellite and upload data back. The service can be a good choice if you can't get cable or DSL access.
Cogent Communications (www.cogentco.com) is developing an all fiber-optic system that offers speeds of 100 megabits per second, which is about 200 times faster than cable and DSL modems and 100 times faster than typical business T1 connections. The cost: $1,000 per month.
Cogent is focusing its efforts initially on 10 cities: its home city of Washington, D.C., plus New York, NY; Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Kansas City, KS; Boston, MA; and San Francisco and Santa Clara, CA.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.