Features – Cable Modems: the Future is Now! – In the Right Neighborhood

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Cindy Chick is the Director of Library Services at the Los Angeles office of Graham & James LLP, the co-editor of LLRXchange, and has developed several software programs for law libraries under the name of CINCH Library Software.

This article was originally published in Searcher Magazine, October issue. For subscription information contact:
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E verything I’d heard concerning up and coming technologies for fast Internet access indicated that cable modems wouldn’t be available for at least three years. So imagine my delight when I received an offer from my Internet provider, Earthlink, (in conjunction with my local cable television company) to beta test cable modem access, right in my very own home. It appears that my home town, Pasadena CA, was on the cutting edge. After filling out the appropriate forms and nagging Earthlink personnel at Internet World, I received a notice the following month that I had been selected for the beta test.

Last chance to back out. While testing a high speed connection certainly sounded appealing, I would have to allow a stranger to mess with my computer. I would also have to purchase a $69.00 Ethernet card for installation by said stranger and that stranger was somehow affiliated with my cable company. I started having anxiety attacks. Beta tests frequently end up becoming a great deal of trouble with products that seem distinctly not ready for prime-time. Did I really need the aggravation of working with a new, relatively untested technology? Will they do something to my computer that will take me hours to undo? My curiosity got the best of me. I decided to live dangerously and set a time for an appointment.

The “stranger” turned out to be an employee from CompUSA. That made me cautiously optimistic. He definitely wasn’t the “cable guy,” and, therefore, seemed to know what he was doing. He was, however, accompanied by not just one, but three cable guys! They all seemed quite competent, but the old saying is true — three’s a crowd. They ran a cable to my computer. Yes, it looked just like my TV cable, and according to the cable guys, it was just like my TV cable. Internet access simply becomes another channel.

The moment of truth arrived. They all stepped back to let me “drive.” First stop, CNN. The page that takes years to load using a 28,800-bps modem speed. Whoosh! There it was. It appeared on my screen astoundingly fast. We moved on, mainly to other news pages that share a similar notoriety for heavy graphics and correspondingly slow load time. They flashed onto the screen. I was thrilled. I was excited. I was hooked.

The next few days went like a blur. I surfed, I searched, I downloaded. After hearing so much about push technology, I finally had the bandwidth to support it, so I installed Pointcast. I downloaded programs that I’d wanted to try, but dreaded the hour or two it could take to complete the process. But now downloading programs took only minutes. It’s a good thing I had a new hard drive.

And just like a network connection, you never needed to wait for the modem to dial — just load the Netscape browser and go. A whole new world opened up. The Internet was no longer a struggle. I could feel my blood pressure drop.

I don’t mean to suggest that I connected to every site effortlessly. Even with a high-speed connection on my end, some heavily trafficked sites remain overloaded, e.g. the U.S. Congress’ Thomas legislative site. Connections to these sites remained difficult. Any point in the network of connections along an Internet path can cause problems, not just the equipment at the user’s end. But overall things got pretty speedy for me.

..it looked just like my TV cable, and according to the cable guys, it was just like my TV cable. Internet access simply becomes another channel.
High-speed access definitely makes the Internet eminently more useful.

The Winner?

High-speed access definitely makes the Internet eminently more useful. I now back-up my computer over the Internet to a service that makes several copies of my data, including one in a vault. I buy software over the Internet, since it’s so easy to simply pay via credit card, and quickly download and install the program. No more trips to Egghead Discount Software for me! And of course, I can surf as I’ve never surfed before. Even video and audio are much smoother to watch and listen to.

So I started walking around with a stupid, self-satisfied smile on my face. When people talked about their new computers, I quickly one-upped them. I had close to T1 access speed in my home. One-upping my Internet savvy nephew didn’t go as well. His Internet access was via satellite. BUT, he paid more for it! I was still on top. Whenever anyone asked how I liked my cable modem, any answer more articulate than “It’s sooo coool” was beyond me.

Of course, no beta test is without its setbacks. When I came back from a week away at the SLA annual conference, I revved-up my computer only to find that my cable connection wouldn’t work. Disaster! I had to go back to using my 28.8-Kbps modem. But my cable guys returned the next day, made a small adjustment, and I was back on the super highway. One other minor glitch also occurred during the test period, but again the remedy came quickly. In a very short time, I became accustomed, no, dependent, on my 256-Kbps access.

Then came that dark day. The cable company called saying the free beta period had ended. Did I want to keep the modem and connection? “Of course!” I said quickly. In fact, I had already signed the letter they’d sent, agreeing to pay $59 per month for my souped up connection. It was a lot of money, but worth it. “Ah, but perhaps I hadn’t heard…,” said the cable guy. They changed their minds about the pricing. It’s not $59 per month, but $79 per month. (This price included my Internet account that previously cost me $20 per month and $10 for the modem lease.) I was aghast. I was angry. I was ambivalent. My blood pressure rose. The price didn’t even include HBO! Or, in fact, any cable television charges.

After much soul-searching, I decided it was too much money. I would have to give it up. No use! I couldn’t go back. I had to keep my cable connection. Somehow, the cable company must have known. Addictive qualities of fast Internet access is worse than nicotine. And there’s no patch to help me give up the habit.

But the story has a happy ending. The cable company subsequently re-thought their pricing, and they’ve decided to offer a $49.95 “bronze” level account — 56-Kbps uploading, 256-Kbps downloading — and $74.95 “silver” access — 128-Kbps uploading, 512-Kbps downloading. Life is good.

Just the Facts

In Pasadena, California, cable modem Internet access is provided through a joint venture between Earthlink, an Internet service provider based in Pasadena, and Charter Communications, the cable company for the Pasadena area. Pasadena was chosen as a beta-test city because of its economic diversity and strong residential base, plus a variety of businesses, hospitals, libraries, universities, etc. Cable access became fully commercially available on August 1st.

The main advantage of cable access is, of course, the speed: Up to 1 million characters per-second (1 Mbps), equivalent to about 35 times the speed of a 28.8-Kbps modem, and 10 times or more times the speed of an ISDN connection. Uploading times decrease down to speeds ranging from a standard 28.8-Kbps modem or up to 768-Kbps. The variation depends on the equipment used by the cable television company.

Cable modem connections require an Ethernet card and an external cable modem about twice the size of a standard external telephone modem. Internal cable modems are not yet available. Most cable companies lease the modem at a cost of about $15 per month. Charter plans to offer them for sale in the near future for $499, but you have to lease or buy you modem from them, no bringing your own.

Cable access has a major problem. The number of household that can access the Internet through their cable connection is limited by the technology of the cable provider. According to a recent study by Kinetic Strategies Inc. and Warren Publishing, Cable Modems & High-Speed Data Services: Technology, Content & Business Strategies, only 10% of U.S. TV households have access to cable systems capable of handling 2-way high-speed data transmission. The study predicted that cable modem service would have nearly 200,000 customers by the end of the year, growing to 1.6 million by the year 2000 and to 3.2 million by early 2002. By August 1997, however, Kinetic Strategies estimated some 3.4 million households in North America could receive commercial two-way cable modem service. By August companies in the field had tallied 35,000 two-way cable modem subscribers, close to double the number in March 1997.

Standard cable plants are designed to send information to the customer, not receive it. So Internet services require an updated, modern cable company plant that can handle both uploading and downloading. (In our beta-test, we used the cable both to download and upload.) Uploading works at a considerably slower speed, though still faster than 28,800 bps modems. This doesn’t present much of a problem, however, since the volume of data uploaded is usually a fraction of what is downloaded. Other cities have tested a configuration using a telephone line to upload and the cable connection only to download. This kind of arrangement doesn’t require as large an investment on the part of the cable company in upgrading equipment.

According to David Housman, Charter Communications’ Director of Product Development for the Western Region, their re-building project, which covers 18 cities, will cost of 35 million dollars and take another year to complete. If the technology were only used for standard data Internet access, it would take 31 years to recoup that investment. But the cable companies are looking to the future, when they can also use these channels to deliver additional services, such as movies on demand.

In many parts of the country, an Internet access provider called @home provides Internet exclusively via cable connections. @Home works with local cable companies to deliver Internet access via existing existing cable lines. Not an easy feat. It still requires a significant investment in hardware, software, and cable technology upgrading in each area that @home serves. You can check @home’s web page to see if they have any plans to provide service in your area.

Housman originally assumed that 95% of the users of Internet cable service would be residential. But since the introduction of the high-speed access, they have found a great deal of interest from businesses and libraries, especially because it can run on a Local Area Network. With T1 lines costing much, much more, the opportunity for cost savings are obvious. Housman has adjusted his original projection to 75% residential, and 25% business.

Other alternatives for personal Internet use, such as ISDN and satellite access, are slower than cable and more expensive. Even if you did have enough money for a T1 line at home, at this time, my phone company, Pacific Bell, won’t install T1 lines in residences.

My experience with cable access proved remarkably trouble-free, even throughout the beta test. Housman says that this is because the technology has been extensively tested in other areas of the country, as well as in Europe. He’s right about something else as well. High-speed cable access truly changes the Internet experience.

The study predicted that cable modem service would have nearly 200,000 customers by the end of the year, growing to 1.6 million by the year 2000 and to 3.2 million by early 2002.

Cable Modem Service and Players

Now that we’ve whetted your appetite for cable modem service — and assuming you don’t all plan to move to Pasadena, California, now that you know we have more to offer than the annual Rose Parade — where can you find information on the availability of cable modem service for your operation?

The first and most obvious recourse — call your area’s cable television operator. Try to get past the folks at the door. You might ask for product development to penetrate the sales/customer support barrier.

For general information, turn to the Web itself. Kinetic Strategies, Inc., publisher of Cable Modem News, offers the best starting point in their Cable Modem Info Center on the Web. Besides links to technical information on cable modems, market information, linked lists of cable modem manufacturers and cable Internet service providers and systems integrators, the Center also provides (very) selected lists of cable modem launches (61 sites) and market trials in North America and internationally (20 countries). You might find a location near you or at least the name of your own cable company. A key resource in the area.

For other round-ups of Web resources on the subject, try “Cable TV Resources on the Net” from Multichannel News for lists of key Web sites, mailing lists, online publications, etc. David Gingold of the MIT Research Program on Communications Policy also supplies an excellent collection, “Cable Modem Resources on the Web.” The linked list with commentary covers manufacturers, cable television players, et al. and even papers, articles, discussions and information (latest entry, September 1996).

Alternative High-Speed Connection Contenders

Cable modems are not the only contender for higher bandwidth connections.

ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network): More broadly available, but at widely varying prices, from telephone companies around the country. Requires special modems and improves communication up to from 64-Kbps to 128-Kbps. For links to providers, try Dan Kegel’s ISDN Web page .

ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line): Offers speeds of from 1 to 8MB per second. Latest versions of the technology support commercial implementation on existing copper wiring. Customers would need to buy ADSL modems and an Ethernet card. Phone companies would supply the service.

T1 line: Typically $650 to $1000 startup, often waived, plus $2-3000 a month, plus the cost of the hardware. Competitive speeds with cable modems.

Satellite Service: A wireless (or relatively wireless) technology still under development, with major players following a number of different design strategies. Charges vary, e.g. monthly fees plus usage ($9.95 and 60 to 80 cents per downloaded megabyte) or flat-rate monthly fees (e.g. $129.95). Particularly interesting for global information delivery and reaching remote or underpopulated locales.

56-Kbps modems: Low priced modems ($200-$300) range with a promise of incrementally higher speed, mainly in transmittals from the Internet to the PC (maximum actually 53-Kbps), not from a PC up to the Internet (28.8-Kbps or 33.6-Kbps maximum). Limited number of 56K-compatible lines available from commercial host services. Problem with competing standards, deterring adoption, from U.S. Robotics (“X2″) and Rockwell/Motorola/Lucent (“K56flex”). Verify availability of compatible lines from vendors before purchase in X2 directory or K56flex directory.

But if someone has your IP address and you have left your file-sharing configuration turned on, all bets are off for your data security and confidentiality.

More Cable Modem Security Worries
(PC World Online)

Cable Modem Security Issues

While you might willingly share your garden tools with your neighbors, or loan them the proverbial cup of sugar, you probably wouldn’t want to share access to the files on your hard drive or to the e-mail that you sent to your mother last week. But according to a New York Times CyberTimes article, “Cost of High Bandwidth: Increased Vigilance” (June 29, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/cyber), that could happen if you subscribe to cable modem service.

One potential security hole stems from Microsoft Windows 95’s “Network Neighborhood,” a feature which allows you to share the files on your hard drive with others on your “network.” Unfortunately, if you connect to the Internet via a cable modem, you and any neighbors sharing that connection are on the same “network.” Unless you disable file-sharing on your computer, others may be able to access files on your hard drive, thereby learning more about you than you intended.

The solution? Simply make sure that you set up your configuration to not share files. The cable technician will turn off this capability when they install the cable modem, which is fine unless you inadvertently set it back on again.

A second security problem may exist due to the fact that your cable access uses shared cable connections, or “party lines.” Your data, as well as that of your neighbors, all flows through the same line. Though you are only supposed to see the data coming to and from your computer, someone could change their “mode,” so that they see all the data moving back and forth between the other subscribers on your line and the Internet.

Cable Internet providers are working on solutions to these problems. Encryption is one possible option, and in fact, the modems provided by Charter Communications, my supplier, automatically encrypt information flowing between the subscriber’s home and the local hub facility. In addition, the local hub has a “head-in” configuration that prevents people from seeing other subscribers’ data.

But, if someone has your IP address and you have left your file-sharing configuration turned on, all bets are off for your data security and confidentiality.

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