Accessing the Internet through a cable modem is a totally different experience from accessing it through a conventional modem, even the newest 56k modem over a clean phone line. You actually can enjoy multimedia Web sites using a cable modem-you don't have to cool your heels waiting for bandwidth-heavy graphics, sound and video to slog their way to you. If you're a heavy or even moderate Internet user, you know how frustrating the "World Wide Wait" can be.
So, right off the bat, I'd highly recommend cable Internet access. But, as always in the world of technology, there are important caveats.
• First, cable Internet access may not be available in your area. Many cable TV companies are beginning to roll out service, but it will be a number of years before most people who want a cable modem can use one.
• Second, cable access costs more than modem access, typically about twice as much per month and comes with a higher installation fee as well.
But because cable modems are based on the coaxial cables of the cable TV world instead of the copper wires of the phone world, you don't tie up a phone line when you're connected. So if you currently have two telephone lines running into your home or business because of your Internet use, you may be able to save money by cutting back down to one phone line. (If you also use that second phone line for PC-based faxing, you may want to keep that second line as well as your modem. You can't fax through your cable connection.)
• Third, you must use your cable company as your Internet service provider (ISP). Unlike with upgrading to a faster modem or using the phone company's ISDN service, you won't have a choice of ISPs. But you can optionally maintain an account with your current service provider and collect your e-mail from it over your new cable connection.
Some ISPs even allow you to maintain an electronic mailbox and Web space for a reduced fee-typically $6 to $10 a month-if you're not using it as your connection point.
• Fourth, unlike with conventional ISPs, you may be able to connect only one PC per account without violating your service agreement and risking the loss of your account. Policies vary by cable company. Some enterprising individuals are connecting multiple PCs using software such as Wingate (www.wingate.net,).
• Fifth, cable Internet access is largely a home-based service. If you're in an office that's not currently wired for cable TV, you may find yourself waiting a long time for cable access to the Internet.
• Sixth, some cable companies in some areas provide only one-way cable Internet service. Data is downloaded to your PC through a fast coaxial cable, but you still need to tie up a phone line to upload data at relatively slow speed. Typically, download speeds with these one-way systems also are slower than with the newer two-way systems. Fortunately, most new cable Internet construction is two-way service.
• Seventh, other competing high-speed Internet technologies are on the horizon or available today. The most talked about is digital subscriber lines (DSL), which telephone companies should begin rolling out within a year. DSL should approach the speed of cable service using existing phone lines.
Unfortunately, the phone and cable companies have a spotty record of offering new technologies at affordable prices. Phone companies were glacially slow in rolling out ISDN service, and most have priced it way out of the reach of typical home and small business users. And cable companies jacked up the cost of cable TV as soon as it became popular and have kept raising prices.
One big unknown is whether there will be real competition in the high-speed Internet market. If, in any given area, you have access only through a cable modem or through DSL, you'll probably pay high fees, now or in the future.
• Eighth, despite the dramatic improvement in speed over modem access, cable access still isn't the information superhighway. You can watch video footage on demand, but the selection is limited, it's occasionally choppy, and you'll see it in a small window on your computer screen.
If you like to tinker, you may be able to increase the speed of your throughput. In Windows 95, for instance, you can adjust the settings in the Registry. MTUSpeed, a program you can download at www.mjs.u-net.com, handles these adjustments automatically. Just make sure you back up your Registry first. At the very least, copy the files System.dat and User.dat from your Windows folder to a backup folder on your hard disk or to a backup floppy.
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.