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The Fastest Net Yet


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The Fastest Net Yet


Ultrafast broadband services from phone and cable companies could speed up your downloads to 15 megabits per second or more.


Michael Desmond

From the October 2005 issue of PC World magazine




A new generation of superfast broadband Internet access promises to do more than accelerate Web browsing and file downloads. Five to thirty times as fast as DSL, these new--and surprisingly affordable--wide pipes can in some cases enable new video, voice, and data services.


Spearheading the coming bandwidth bonanza are fiber-optic services from Verizon and SBC--and hefty bandwidth increases from competing cable providers. For customers, these offerings can immediately speed up music, photo, video, and software downloads; they could eventually enable HD-quality video on demand, custom views of live events, and other bandwidth-intensive services.



Steve Dektor is an early convert to Verizon's fiber-optic Fios service. The owner of Alliance Computer Services, a repair and maintenance business he operates out of his home in Keller, Texas, Dektor dumped his cable ISP for good last year after taking part in an early Fios trial.


"We've had the 15-mbps service, and it's just really fast," says Dektor, who frequently downloads large software service packs and application updates. "If the Verizon service is available, it's a no-brainer. The cost is comparable [to cable and DSL pricing], the speed is much higher, and the reliability has been great. I think most people who want broadband and have the Verizon service available are on it."


And there's the rub: Access to "ultra" broadband services remains limited. Verizon--by far the most aggressive player--has announced many high-speed fiber deployments, but actual rollouts have been slow: At press time, its Fios service had signed up fewer than 300,000 subscribers. But other services are boosting speed, if not as dramatically.


Worth the Wait


Analyst Rob Enderle, founder of The Enderle Group, uses DSL but is eagerly awaiting the pumped-up bandwidth. "At the price points they are talking about, I'd grab it in a minute," he says.



For example, Verizon's basic Fios service, which offers speeds of 5 megabits per second downstream and 2 mbps upstream, costs $40 a month; $50 per month boosts downstream rates to 15 mbps. The high-end $200 monthly package delivers 30 mbps downstream and 5 mbps upstream. (Subscribers to Verizon phone service plans receive discounts of $5 to $20 a month.)


Verizon attains these speeds by replacing copper cables with fiber-optic lines. Like DSL and cable ISPs, providers of fiber-based services generally offer asymmetric data rates (downstream throughput that's two to six times higher than upstream), because the majority of residential customers download more than they upload.


Even so, upstream rates have increased greatly, and customers notice. "With more and more people sharing pictures on the Internet...the 2-megabits-per-second upload can really help move things along," Dektor says.


The other nationwide fiber rollout is SBC's $4 billion Project Lightspeed, slated to reach 18 million households by the end of 2007. (Meanwhile, SBC has sped up its Yahoo DSL Pro service.) Cable companies such as Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner/Road Runner have also announced big hikes in downstream data rates (see chart for plan details). Cox, for example, has raised downstream rates for its basic service from 1 mbps to 4 or 5 mbps. Even if you don't opt to buy these new services, you might benefit as prices drop for slower broadband, says Michael Arden, broadband analyst with ABI Research.


Shifting Services


Industry watchers expect cable providers to catch up as they deploy next-generation IP (Internet Protocol) cable networks. Dave Burstein, editor of DSL Prime, an online newsletter for the broadband industry, says new cable technology, which should be in use by 2007, could deliver as much as 50 to 200 mbps per household. But consumers will have little say in what next-gen broadband they get, or when it will arrive.




What will users do with all the bandwidth? With 35 mbps downstream, services such as interactive, IP-based television (IPTV) become possible. This connection could support two simultaneous HDTV streams, allow users to switch camera angles on, say, a sporting event--and still leave bandwidth to spare for voice and traditional data service. Enderle envisions TiVo-like digital video recording on remote servers, and sophisticated video security monitoring. Businesses could use PCs as terminals for content and processing power hosted online.


But such services face some challenges. Teney Takahashi, market analyst for research firm The Radicati Group, says the software and hardware to drive these applications are unlikely to be ready before 2007. And ABI's Arden points out that ISPs will have to overcome licensing hurdles that piracy-obssessed Hollywood studios are sure to impose.


In short, this rosy broadband future won't materialize overnight. "If you start going five years out from now, that's when you see the whole IPTV stuff kicking in, you see the new services that you just can't get today from the cable operators," Arden says. "Five years out you are going to notice a big difference."


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