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What's a NUON?: How to Play a CD Backwards and Why We Should Care

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

After 22 years of living in Silicon Valley, watching apricot orchards turn into office parks, I have escaped to the California Wine Country. My new home is in bucolic Bennett Valley, an unincorporated part of Sonoma County, where I live on a hill with 50-mile views in every direction. It is a fabulous place to live, but the Internet service sucks. Welcome to my connectivity nightmare, an adventure with surprising implications even for people who don't live in the boonies.

My Internet service back in the Bay Area was luxurious, fit for a pasha. For the last two years, I had a symmetric DSL connection running at 784 kilobits-per-second. It was a Northpoint Communications DSL service. (Northpoint is a national DSL provider.) For a year before that, I had a 384 kilobit-per-second SDSL line from Covad, another national provider. I had to switch from Covad to Northpoint when I wanted the higher speed because (remember this was two years ago and things change) Covad was unable to give me the higher speed I needed. I needed the speed upgrade because at the time, I was doing a project for British TV that required schlepping huge video files over the Net.

Interestingly, the jump from 384 to 784 didn't help my Web surfing a bit. This is because most Web servers are optimized for 56K connections. So even though I could download at a tremendous pace, most servers wouldn't feed me fast enough. This is an important lesson to keep in mind when choosing your DSL datarate, because the higher speeds often aren't worth the extra costs. It is worth the extra money if you are running a server or doing lots of FTP downloads, but generally not for normal Web surfing. About the only time I had a sense of speed from that connection was when I visited the WozCam, a video camera trained on the desk of Steve Wozniak, founder of Apple Computer. Suddenly I could see Woz reading the newspaper at 63 kilobytes-per-second. When I asked him about this, Woz said the WozCam was such a bandwidth hog he gave it a dedicated T-1 line. It helps to be a zillionaire.

Imagine the shock when I got to the country and discovered not only that I was too far from town for regular DSL, but that I couldn't even get full modem speed on a dial-up. The best I have ever seen is 28.8 kilobits-per-second and I have tried (in alphabetical order) A+Net, AOL, AT&T Worldlink, Mindspring, and MSN.

Cable modems are out of the question. Even if there was cable running down my road, I'm half a mile from the mailbox and 500 feet higher in elevation. The cost of the cable installation would break me. So would the price of a fractional T-1 line, which would be at least $1,000 per month.

The problem is that I am 36,696 feet from the telephone company central office and most DSL connections go no further than 18,000 feet (and I have doubts even about that distance). My old DSL line was 11,000 feet from the CO, a distance at which I should have been able to download at 1.5 megabits-per-second, but the best I could get was half of that. There is a reason why some DSL lines won't make the distance and others will, and that's the quality of the original wire. When Bellcore (now Telcordia) set the original ADSL standard many years ago, they said it could upload at 128 kilobits-per-second and download at 1.5 megabits-per-second up to 18,000 feet from the CO, but only on telephone lines that had no taps or loading coils. Fair enough, but if your neighborhood hasn't had its phone lines replaced in the last 10 years, it is doubtful a line can even be found without taps or loading coils. So the DSL providers install and test; they take whatever line is available, install the service, test the maximum speed it will run, and that's what you get to buy.

So if you are expecting to download pay-per-view movies on your DSL line and you are more than a couple blocks from the phone company, be prepared for a disappointment.

This still leaves me up a hill with a 28.8 modem connection, of course. So I decided to consider wireless Internet service. Hughes Electronics has its DirecPC satellite service that downloads at 400 kilobits-per-second, but my friends who have tried this are generally not very happy. It is an asymmetric service with the upstream handled by a local ISP at no more than 56 kbps (28.8 in my case). Since I run a Seb server, this wouldn't do for me. My friends have also complained about DirecPC's latency, caused by the many hops required to request and fulfill data, with at least two of those hops being 22,300 miles long.

There are some wireless T-1 providers, just not in lovely Bennett Valley.

I looked into doing a microwave connection with a local ISP. This is a very interesting possibility because there are a number of inexpensive wireless networking products that can be tweaked to go a lot further than their makers want us to know. I first learned about this from Steve Roberts, a hacker who pedaled around the country for several years on a high-tech bike writing stories about his adventures along the way. Steve had an onboard cellphone and discovered that using an incredibly ugly Yagi antenna allowed crystal clear reception as much as 100 miles from the nearest city.

We are addicted to those little rubber ducky antennas. If I put a dish antenna with 32 dB of gain on any of the current 2.4-GHz networking products their range is increased dramatically — certainly up to the 6.5 miles I need to reach town. This assumes, of course, that I have a dish on each end (the other end is the roof of a friendly ISP) and the dishes are aimed right at each other. It also assumes that there isn't A DAMNED MOUNTAIN RIGHT IN THE WAY. Well, there is a mountain, so what the heck. Careful use of my Topo! topographic mapping software reveals all would be well if only I installed a 1,500 foot antenna tower on my roof.

So much for wireless. That T-1 is sounding better already.

Fortunately, there is another answer. The rise of DSL came at the expense of ISDN, the previous (and more expensive) phone company networking product. ISDN is available less and less, but it would make the distance I need. And now there is a service called IDSL, which is DSL signaling over an ISDN line. IDSL is good for up to 144 kilobits-per-second at a distance of 36,000 feet from the central office. Covad offers IDSL in my area, so that's the way I am going. If I need more bandwidth than 144 kbps, Netopia claims to be able to bond two IDSL lines together with one of their new routers. Alas, Netopia didn't answer my e-mail.

So for the moment, the answer for me is IDSL, which will be installed sometime in January (remember, this is the phone company we are talking about). It is much less bandwidth than I am used to, but I'm moving my web server to my ISP and installing a Squid caching server on my end, and for now, I think it will be okay. And in the long run, it will be REALLY okay because DSL distances are going to shortly be extended. Copper Mountain and GoDigital now have a solution aimed at ISPs, rather than end-users, that can cram as many as three IDSL circuits on a single pair of wires and send that signal up to 100,000 feet. This would be enough to take me back to 432 kilobits-per-second, which is plenty for me. I am presuming here that the ISP solution will morph shortly into a consumer product. The implications for this, of course, is that DSL will eventually be available to 99 percent of U.S. households, something that has profound implications not only for the Internet, but for electronic delivery of entertainment services.

But for the moment, please write short e-mails, because I'm still at 28.8.

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