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What DSL? Cable enthusiasts pipe up

A ZDNet News column extolling DSL as the future of Internet connectivity drew responses from the other side of the broadband divide

Responding to a ZDNet News column touting the advantages of DSL over cable when it comes to broadband Internet access, TalkBack correspondents waxed enthusiastic about their experiences with cable's pricing and service.

Guest columnist Paul Roche, an analyst with market researcher McKinsey had opined that DSL's dedicated bandwidth, regional competition and reliability give it the edge over competing services provided via cable. But plenty of readers were ready to sound off on their own experiences to the contrary.

"AT&T cable plus @home has been up for a year now with little downtime," wrote David Welsh of Ferndale, Michigan. "Speeds are, if anything, faster now than when I started. Cable is still cheaper than DSL. It would be hard to get me to switch."

"I don't know why people think that a shared line is so bad," wrote Kentucky computer technician Kevin C. Redden. "Web pages click on instead of just crawling on; I download 6MB-plus files regularly.

"Where is this so-called 'slowdown' coming from? I ask anyone else with cable: Does it slow below a 56Kbps modem? Or is this slowdown just a figment of people's imagination?"

DSL pitfalls

Other readers pointed to what they saw as weaknesses in the DSL arsenal. "Technically, cable can outperform DSL at every step of the way," wrote Richard, a San Francisco Bay Area cable user.

  • "(1) IP is packetised data, and pipe speed is usually not very important. Most of the time it is better to be sharing 30Mbps than have a dedicated 1.5Mbps. At some point in any network architecture, with any technology (including ADSL), one is sharing with hundreds of other users.

  • "(2) DSL really needs a fiber backbone running throughout the city just as cable does. Without it, speed is limited and hook-up not possible for many users. DSL needs comparable [investment] to cable. Twisted-pair-only DSL is a short-term, cheap kludge.

  • "(3) As demand goes up, cable can partition and switch and use more channels for data as demand goes up. The end game is defined by the pipe from the street to the house. Ultimately, cable [companies can] expand their backbone and hook up fibre to the curb with the full coax bandwidth into the house. Twisted pair is much more limited.

  • "(4) Don't underestimate AT&T," Richard concluded. "At least they are technically smart and are fully aware of the pros and cons of DSL and cable architectures. Hence, they know the future is defined by the cable to the house from the street."

"DSL win the broadband-access battle? I think not," wrote Jing Hsu, a software engineer in McLean, Va. "Everyone posting on the 'nay' side presents very accurate and technical reasons why DSL isn't the 'always on, always dedicated' connection the vendors selling it would like you to believe.

"I used to work for an ISP that specialized in DSL, and I can tell you DSL is far from stable. For starters, it doesn't matter who your vendor is -- Qwest, Flashcom, xyz-ISP -- they all still have to go through the local telco [and] are vulnerable to any outages that may occur. There were too many days to count where the phones in the support center would be ringing off the hook because there was a fibre-optic line cut in Chicago or in D.C. And if there is an outage due to the ILEC phone lines, service might not be restored for several hours, or in some cases, days.

"Secondly, and most importantly, DSL is distance-specific. The generally accepted distance that one can be from a telephone central office is 18,000 feet to qualify for the service. Granted, if the ILEC or the vendor provision and re-provision the loop, they may be able to get around some of the distance snafus, but this rarely is successful.

"Lastly, I see wireless Ethernet as a more viable option for affordable broadband," Hsu concluded. "Cable is definitely too expensive, and DSL (at least now) is too unstable and limited in scope."

In the DSL camp

Roche's column also drew comments from DSL advocates who shared his enthusiasm for the standard.

"I have BOTH cable modem and ADSL at home here in Vancouver," wrote H. Todino. "The ADSL is faster (1.5 to 1.9Mbps tested) than the cable modem (300 to 500Kbps tested). The cable modem goes down more often, it slows down a lot in peak hours, the operator is less customer-service oriented, and it is more of a security concern.

"As a consumer, ADSL wins; however, I prefer to have both. Paying less than $1 a day for an additional broadband pipe is minimal."

"I've been on DSL for eight months, and I love it," wrote John C. Graves, a Los Angeles sound editor.

"DSL does demand exceptional performance from a phone line, so physical irregularities in the phone line, particularly those caused by severe weather, may cause problems. Nevertheless, I consider my DSL miles more reliable than Earthlink's dial-up ever was. DSL is more reliable than Yahoo! or my broker.

Pacific Bell's "telephone service help has been very good, and the people seem sharp and competent," Graves wrote. "All this for $39 (£24.68) a month! I'm thinking of getting a second DSL line for the family computers."

George, a Chicago Web developer, said he had few doubts about the outcome of the contest: "DSL will win, period.

"Who cares about the consumer market? When small and medium-size businesses wake up and realise that they can get T-1 speeds for one-third the cost, it will be game over for cable. The profit margins in this area are far higher than the consumer area.

"I have a 416/208 DSL line for $40/month. How can cable beat that?"

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