I have seen the future and it is a cable modem.
It sits on the desk next to my PC and connects me to the Internet at warp speed -- the fastest on-line ride I've ever had.
Those humongous Web pages full of graphics and animations that once took ages to load are now exploding on the screen. I can click on a link and get real-time video from a computer halfway around the world. Huge files download in a few seconds and gigantic files in a couple of minutes.
Best of all, the connection is available 24 hours a day. No hourly charges, no dialing up and no busy signals.
I love it.
The technology that makes this possible comes from Comcast Corp., over the same set of wires that provides our 53 channels-but-nothing-good cable TV signal. Since the beginning of the year, the cable company has been rolling out its new Comcast @Home Internet service in Baltimore County, neighborhood by neighborhood, providing cutting edge access to the World Wide Web. By the end of the year, Comcast says, most of Baltimore County and neighboring Howard County should be wired.
Those who sign up can consider themselves pioneers. According to Kinetic Strategies Inc., a market research firm in Phoenix, Ariz., there were only 19,000 homes with cable Internet service nationwide as of March 1. Researchers expect that number to reach 200,000 within a year, but locally, Comcast is the only provider with firm Internet cable plans.
Frankly, I was skeptical when Comcast and other cable outfits announced that they were jumping into the Internet market. While the coaxial cables that carry TV signals to 60 percent of American households can theoretically provide a high-speed pipeline to the Web, cable systems were originally designed as one-way affairs. They require hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new equipment and fiber optic backbone to make them two-way streets. On top of that, cable companies have developed a reputation over the years for less-than-stellar customer service. But Comcast has made the investment and delivered on its promise.
First things first. To get Internet cable service, it has to be available in your neighborhood. Installation costs $175 (although special offers can reduce that by half). For that price, technicians will visit your home, run a wire from your cable junction to your computer, install a network adapter card in your PC, attach a cable modem, set up the software and get everything running.
The monthly charge is $40 for current cable subscribers and $60 for non-subscribers. This includes rental of a cable modem. The $40 charge is about twice the rate for local dial-up Internet service, but considerably less than cable's closest high-speed competition, an ISDN phone line.
My installation took an hour and a half, which is several weeks less than it took to get my ISDN line working last year. The technician handled all the tough stuff, including the Windows 95 Internet settings. Having spent a couple of days finagling Windows for the Internet myself, I was impressed. I was also impressed when he had the good sense to make backups of my original configuration files before he started hacking.
Comcast installs a customized version of the Netscape Web browser that takes you directly to the @Home Web page. @Home is a national network set up to provide a high-speed Internet backbone for cable companies, as well as localized news, weather, sports, entertainment and games enriched with graphics, audio and video. But you can use any Web browser with the service. I already had two different versions of Netscape on my machine, along with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and they all worked.
Because you're connected directly to the @Home network, there's no dialup or logon. All you have to do is start up your Web browser. The Comcast service includes an Internet mailbox and up to 5 megabytes of space for a personal Web page.
Just how fast is it? In nontechnical terms, it's a whole lot faster than anything else I've tried, including the ISDN phone line I use at home and the dedicated, high-speed connection we have at The Sun. Overall, the service delivered close to a megabit of data per second, which is the equivalent of 100,000 characters of text.
That's about 50 times as fast as the best modem connection and 10 times as fast as my ISDN line has ever performed. At those speeds, the Web becomes an entirely different experience.
Much of this speed is the result of the @Home network, which caches, or stores copies of frequently accessed Web pages on its own servers. While this approach minimizes Internet traffic, you may occasionally get older versions of Web pages that are updated frequently. But overall, the service worked well, and when I tested throughput with obscure Web pages that weren't likely to be cached, I got performance that was almost as impressive.
Be aware, however, that a high-speed Internet connection doesn't necessarily mean everything is going to move at light speed. Internet bottlenecks and overloaded servers at popular Web sites can still create substantial delays.
Another question is how well Comcast's speed will hold up once thousands of people sign up for the service. The cable network is like any other -- everyone in your neighborhood shares the available bandwidth. While Comcast says it has designed its system to shift loads around when demand peaks, no one knows how well that will work. But even at a half to a third of the speed I'm getting, the cable system would still be far better than any other service.
Comcast @Home may not be the right solution for everyone. Unlike dial-in systems, it's only available from a single computer. If you have more than one computer at home, you'll have to pay for a separate account for each machine.
It's also a questionable choice as the only service for travelers who like to access the Internet from the road. Comcast's e-mail system is part of @Home's proprietary network, which means you can't log onto an Internet provider somewhere else and retrieve your mail from the Comcast server. Likewise, there's no dial-in system, which means you can't access Comcast's Web service from anywhere but your home PC. Comcast says it will eventually make its e-mail available from the Internet and plans to set up a dial-in service, but for now its limitations apply.
If you can live with those limits, and most home users can, Comcast @Home can make the Internet an incredible adventure. It's not cheap, but it's worth every penny.
Comcast @Home is currently available in the Towson, Lutherville, Timonium, Pikesville and Owings Mills areas. To sign up or get information on installation schedules for your neighborhood, call 888-793-1800.
Pub Date: 4/20/97