According to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union and the Neilsen/NetRatings, the percentage of Americans with an Internet subscription has increased from 44.1 percent in 2000 to 72.5 percent in 2008. The current number of Internet users in the U.S. is just over 300 million. With so much demand for Internet access, it is small wonder that the ways in which homeowners can connect their homes to the Internet has risen as well.
The Need for Speed
The need for a high-speed Internet connection in the home is driven by a number of industries. On the entertainment front, high-definition programming and on-demand content requires bandwidth to optimize user experience and shorten the waiting time on downloaded movies and music. New home security systems require an active, always-on Internet connection to enable two-way communication with a monitoring station and allow for effective remote monitoring of the home. “Smart” homes utilize an active, high-speed Internet connection for integration of—and remote access to—the home’s automated subsystems, including heating, cooling and lighting. As user demand for these advanced technologies increase, so too will the number of high-speed Internet subscribers.
Broadband access in the home can bring additional educational and convenience benefits as well. “A single mom with kids can take online course from home with a high-speed connection,” says Sylvia Rosenthal, executive director for the Alliance for Public Technology (APT), one of many organizations promoting the expansion of broadband Internet availability across the country. “High-speed Internet enables the deaf and hard-of-hearing to have real-time video communication,” she continues. “The subtleties of hand movements with sign language get lost with a slower connection.”
There are numerous organizations undertaking initiatives to bring high-speed Internet access to everyone in the United States. Agreeing on the definition of “high-speed,” however, has been one of the challenges facing these groups. “Most agree that the definition should evolve, just as the technology advances,” says Rosenthal. The FCC currently defines “high speed lines” as those providing 200K, or 200 Kilobit-per-second, speeds. “Most agree that the FCC standard is too low,” Rosenthal adds. The FCC itself appears to acknowledge this issue, and states on its Web site that the standard is under review.
Other organizations use comparisons between the U.S. and the rest of the world to underline the pressing need to better broadband speeds and access. Speedmatters.org is a program conceived by the Communication Workers of America that recently issued a report stating the median download speed in the U.S. is about 2.3 Mbps, while countries like Japan (63 Mbps), South Korea (49 Mbps) and France (17 Mbps) boast significantly faster speeds. While these countries do not face the geographical challenges that a large country like the U.S. faces, the comparisons nonetheless illustrate how far behind this nation is on the Internet speed front. “It isn’t just an issue of penetration—it’s also about performance,” says George Ou, analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a nonprofit organization promoting polices to advance technology in the U.S. “High-speed Internet access is a great enabler for economic opportunities,” Ou adds. “Most jobs are found online, and computer literacy is a major job requirement.”
Despite faster speeds available through cable, DSL and fiber services, dial-up Internet is still offered across the country. Because dial-up Internet service only requires a working phone line, dial-up service brings connectivity to homeowners living in areas where higher-speed options like cable, DSL and fiber are not available.
Dial-up service’s greatest criticism is the lack of speed. By far the slowest Internet connection option, dial-up speeds fall largely into the 56K, or 56
Kilobit-per-second, speed rating. This falls short of the FCC’s 200K standard for “high speed lines,” which is one reason why dial-up is not considered a “high-speed Internet” option. Dial-up also requires users to “dial-up” to connect to the Internet, a process that also ties up the home’s phone line, preventing it from other use.
Most dial-up Internet service providers offer an upgraded plan that brings faster download speeds, and in most cases these “accelerated” plans utilize special software that loads Web pages to the user browser faster, creating the illusion of greater bandwidth.
Dial-up providers offer a variety of rates for their services, though generally they are much less expensive than DSL or cable. The average is about $7 to $15 per month, which usually includes unlimited access.
Some dial-up Internet service providers include:
• Copper Internet
DSL, or digital subscriber line, is an Internet service provided across existing phone lines, like dial-up. With DSL, however, the connection is “always on,” and users do not have to enter a username and password to go online. The phone line carries both Internet data and voice transmissions from phone calls. Potential customers investigating DSL service may come across the terms “ADSL” (“asymmetrical digital subscriber line”) and “SDSL” (“symmetrical digital subscriber line”). Both refer to the download and upload speeds of the connection. In an asymmetrical scenario (the most common residential DSL service offered), the download speeds are faster than the upload speeds. With symmetrical service, the speeds are the same. An SDSL service is usually going to cost more, but it is advantageous to those who use the Internet for online gaming or sharing and uploading large files. This kind of service usually requires a separate phone line while most DSL services do not require a separate line.
Like all Internet service, the costs of DSL service vary by provider and by region, but customers might expect anywhere from $15 to $40 per month, depending on plan specifics, like download speeds. Download speeds will also vary by provider, and some providers will offer different “tiers” of service, with higher speeds incurring greater monthly costs. DSL download speeds usually range anywhere from around 700 Kbps to 7 Mbps.
Some DSL service providers include:
• EarthLink DSL
As of September 2007, The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Web site states that over 90 percent of American households had access to a cable operator’s high-speed Internet service. Like DSL, Internet service from a cable provider shares a single cable line for multiple services. In this case, Internet data and digital television is transmitted along the same cable.
Generally speaking, Internet service provided by a cable company will have faster download and upload speeds than a DSL service. Like DSL, however, cable Internet is most commonly asymmetrical in nature; that is, the download speeds are faster than the upload speeds. Depending on the service provider and the plan, cable Internet download speeds can start as slow as 786 Kbps to as fast as 20 Mbps. Costs will vary accordingly, as well, with monthly fees ranging from $20 to $70.
Some of the cable companies offering high-speed Internet are:
• Time Warner
The advent of satellite Internet service meant rural homeowners living in areas not serviced by DSL or cable broadband Internet providers wouldn’t be dependent solely on dial-up for Internet access. Satellite Internet service requires a satellite dish receiver, which is installed outside or on the home. Typically, satellite Internet service comes with an installation and/or equipment fee, though consumer might find temporary deals waiving one or both.
Faster than dial-up Internet, satellite Internet service is still generally slower than cable, and a tad bit slower than DSL, depending on the service plan. Typical satellite Internet download speeds range between 512 Kbps to 1.5 Mbps, with asymmetrically slower upload speeds. The accessibility gained through satellite Internet comes at a cost–$50 to $80 per month fees are common for this kind of service.
Here are some satellite Internet providers:
• SkyWay USA
A lot of media and consumer attention has been given to recently available fiber optic Internet service providers, most notably Verizon’s FiOS service. Fiber optic technology boasts a few advantages over its copper counterparts, such as greater bandwidth and reliability. Although many cable companies utilize a hybrid copper/fiber technology for their cable runs, these runs terminate at a “node,” and the final connection from each node to individual homes is done over copper. Verizon’s “fiber-to-the-premises” (also called “fiber-to-the-home” or “FTTH”) initiative brings fiber optic cable directly to the customer’s home, which promises faster Internet speeds. Verizon’s FiOS market is still smaller than the reach that cable or DSL has, but popularity among those with FiOS availability suggests that expansion to their roll-out program is inevitable.
Other telecommunications companies are following suit. Qwest and AT&T have deployed fiber runs, although both programs fail to bring fiber over the “last mile,” to the subscriber’s house. Rather, both groups end their fiber runs at the node (also called “fiber-to-the-node,” or “FTTN”). It’s an important distinction to make, as Internet speeds for a FTTH infrastructure will vary with those of a FTTN situation.
FTTH services offered by Verizon FiOS bring download speeds from 5 Mbps to 30 Mbps, with some markets claiming as much as 50 Mbps in download speeds. This service comes at a cost, however, and FiOS customers can expect to pay from about $40 per month for a basic Internet service to as much as $140 per month for the fastest plan.
Some fiber optic Internet providers include:
• Verizon FiOS
• Qwest (Note, this is a fiber-to-the-node service.)
For homeowners frequently on the go, subscribing to a wireless or “mobile Internet” plan can be a smart move. Mobile Internet service comes by way of cellular technology—users access the Internet via cellular providers’ towers, which transmit data to a compatible hardware device that commonly attaches to the users’ laptop or desktop computer. Some laptops and computers are built with integrated technology to permit access to select providers’ wireless broadband service.
Wireless Internet plans are typically available from cellular service providers and incur a monthly fee for access. Some plans may limit the amount of data that can be transmitted each month, while other plans grant unlimited access for a monthly fee. Mobile Internet plans allow users to access the Internet from anywhere within a service provider’s coverage area, which will vary by provider and location.
The cost for a mobile Internet service will vary by provider, with $60 per month fees serving as a typical amount. AT&T’s “DataConnect” Plan, for example, costs $60 per month and limits usage to 5GB per month, with overage charges applying. Homeowners who elect to go with a mobile Internet plan to bring Internet connection to the home should choose a provider whose service coverage reaches the home.
Wireless Internet Service Providers, or “WISPs,” are companies that offer wireless Internet access through wirelessly enabled “hotspots” set up in certain locations. T-Mobile and Boingo are two companies that have widespread wireless hotspots found in cafes, restaurants and businesses countrywide and worldwide.
Additionally, there are WISPs providing wider-reaching wireless broadband access to users in certain cities or regions. KeyOn Communications is one wireless broadband service provider with a large presence in the Midwest in states like Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. Using wireless transmitting towers, KeyOn is able to service rural areas and communities with wireless broadband, at speeds around 1 or 1.5 Mbps. The flat, treeless features of these regions are suitable for wireless service, and the “hub towers” used to send and receive wireless signals from subscribers can operate over a 10-mile radius. Subscribers are equipped with roof-mounted receivers that often resemble satellite television dishes or small, flat-panel televisions. An Ethernet cable connects the receiver to a piece of powered hardware in the home. From there, homeowners can connect directly to a computer or attach a router to continue the wireless connection throughout the home. Service costs vary, but homeowners might expect to pay $30 to $40 per month. “Our sweet spot is the rural customer who can’t get cable or DSL,” says Rory Erchul, vice president of sales and marketing for KeyOn, which currently serves about 16,000 customers across 11 states. “It’s a great option for folks who live a couple miles out of town who otherwise could only get dial-up.”
Finding the Best Service in Your Area
Unfortunately, the partial lists of Internet service providers listed in this article will not apply to every reader. Even the biggest cable and telecommunications companies are usually confined to certain states or regions, which can leave homeowners unsure or uninformed of all the Internet service options in their area.
Fortunately, there are a number of Web sites offering Internet service provider finder features. Users can type in their address and/or ZIP code to get a list of local dial-up, DSL, cable and satellite Internet service providers. Some sites are more effective than others, and none of the search results should be taken at face value as service providers frequently change rates, deals and package details to keep up with the competition. Still, the search results can serve as a helpful jumping off point for homeowners looking to compare and contrast available Internet service providers.
There is no best way to bring Internet into the home, but there are plenty of options. In the end, projecting the home’s usage will often determine which service provider’s plan is best, and availability will continue to be the biggest limiting factor.
Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac