Does broadband Internet access really exist?

I'm beginning to think that all the talk about fat pipes masks what's essentially an illusion. Although I know people who have cable modem and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) connections, the total number of fat-pipe subscribers in the United States isn't impressive. Around the middle of 2000, surveys showed just under 1.5 million broadband users. The most optimistic guesstimates put the total number of users at the end of 2000 at about 2 million to 3 million subscribers. So at best, somewhat less than 5 percent of all Internet users in the United States have a fat pipe to the Internet. This figure doesn't take into account the percentage of broadband connections that businesses are using. My skepticism about the availability of broadband services derives from my thwarted attempts to access such service.

It Seemed So Simple ...
I live in a moderately affluent community between Philadelphia and New York City. When I first moved in, I did what many of my neighbors did—took a daily 60-minute-one-way train ride into New York to get to work. A large percentage of the folks on those trains were in finance or technology; quite a few worked in publishing. These people fit the target market for broadband Internet access, but we couldn't even get decent dial-up access to the Internet.

I made my first attempt at broadband access about a year ago, when I tried to get SDSL service from Covad, a broadband services provider. Covad checked its records, checked my address and phone numbers, and told me I was pretty far away from the telephone company's central office but that I should be able to get 384Kbps download/384Kbps upload service with little trouble. I contacted PSINet, which provided my not-too-cost-effective frame-relay Internet connection (and is a Covad partner), and asked the company to get moving on my service request. About 3 weeks later, I received a message from Covad telling me to expect an AT&T installation technician at my house on a specific day during the next week to install my DSL service. "Well, this has been pretty painless," I thought.

Too painless to be true, unfortunately. The appointed day came and went with no sign of an installer. My calls and email messages to Covad resulted in a Covad account manager forwarding me an email message that the company had received from Bell Atlantic (which now goes by the name Verizon). The message told Covad that my house was too far from the central office to install any form of DSL service. Interestingly, Verizon recently told me that it will soon be offering ADSL in my area. I guess the company moved its central office. I recently checked back with Covad, and the company now tells me I can get a business-only version of SDSL at the blazing speed of 144Kbps/144Kbps. Of course, Covad isn't sure it can provide this service. It has to check with the local phone company.

Trimming My Expectations
For my next trick, I thought I'd try for a cable modem. My cable company, one of the few small independents left in the country, had trouble providing a TV signal over its cable system, but Comcast had purchased the company about 6 months before I began checking for cable modem availability. Within weeks of the buyout, Comcast had made significant changes to the cable system. During this period, every time I left my house I saw Comcast trucks and crews out working on the cabling. And Comcast had requested that I trade in my old cable boxes for the company's new digital cable boxes so that I could experience the wonders of digital cable. So I gave the comcast@home sign-up Web site a shot. To my surprise, the site told me that my house was within the area of service for cable modems, then offered me a few purchase options. I filled out the forms and received an email message telling me that a salesperson would contact me within 2 business days to complete the transaction. The situation was beginning to look promising.

My cynical nature got the better of me, however, and I went to the local cable company Web site directly. Following the link to the comcast@home site, I filled out the same forms with the same information I had used previously. This time, I received a response that told me cable modem service was not available in my area and that I could fill out another form so that Comcast could tell me if and when it would be. I have yet to hear from a Comcast salesperson regarding my cable modem service. Shortly thereafter, I discovered a cable technician digging up the cable box on the corner of my lawn. He told me he was adding a repeater for one of my neighbors. When I asked him about cable modem installation, he just laughed and pointed out that none of the digital cable services that Comcast had been nagging me to upgrade to could be available to me until the antique cable running under our street had been upgraded to something of a more recent vintage.

At that point, I checked into a T1 line, an option I had investigated earlier but rejected because of the cost. I again choked at the $1400-per-month line charge that Verizon quoted. I guess I could have set up a local ISP and shared the cost with my neighbors, but the cost for equipment to set up a wired network around the neighborhood would be pretty high.

A Glimmer of Hope
Then things started to look up a bit. I'm an MSN subscriber: I use MSN's nationwide Point of Presence (POP) servers for Internet access when I'm traveling, and the MSN home page had a link to broadband two-way satellite access that was available immediately. I followed the links to the high-speed MSN Web page to find that the broadband service, from StarBand, was available only with the purchase of a specific Compaq computer system from RadioShack. I learned from a visit to the StarBand Web site that I could buy the service directly from StarBand, and that only 4 weeks later, I could have it installed. Two weeks later, the same "buy it now, get it in 4 weeks" message was still on StarBand's Web site.

Stay Tuned
As I write this column, I have just returned from a meeting with Hughes Network Systems DirecPC representatives at the Consumer Electronics Show. They told me that their company's two-way satellite broadband access would be available to the public around March 2001, but that if I were interested in reviewing the product, they could get it to me much sooner. Given my options, the 400Kbps/128kbps speeds that DirecPC offers are attractive. I've decided to take Hughes up on its offer. If I like the product after reviewing it, I'll buy the equipment. You should see my review within the next few months. If the review doesn't appear, you can be sure that I'm still trying to squeeze a few extra kilobits per second out of the two paper cups and piece of fishing line that make up my antiquated Internet access.