When you think of high-tech, Silicon Valley usually comes to mind. Route 128 in Boston, perhaps. And with the rise of Microsoft, even the Pacific Northwest is seen as a high-tech corridor.

But Phoenix, Arizona?

I don't know how the planets aligned properly to make this happen, but the first public trials for cable modem access and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) both occurred in Phoenix. To this day, the only place you can find a choice of either of these Internet access technologies, in any appreciable amount, is still Phoenix.

I should mention at this point that I live in Phoenix. I'm loving life.

Cable modems, like DSL, offer a limitless connection: when you turn on your computer and boot-up, you're online. You don't need to dial-in or "connect" in any way. In many ways, it's like you're on a network that just happens to be the entire Internet. It is exactly like connecting to a LAN, and even requires an Ethernet card to connect your machine to the cable modem.

Did I mention speed?

Cable leaves dual-channel ISDN and DSL in the dust, making these types of connections seem like 2400 baud; cable is also less expensive and much, much easier to setup and configure. The word "modem" is sort of a misnomer actually, it's really a router that connects your computer to the local cable network node. To give you an idea of the speed these devices deliver, I've personally downloaded the 18MB Service Pack 2 for Windows NT 4 in 45 seconds. I uploaded it once in 39 seconds. Now, this isn't consistent; the speed will always depend on numerous factors, including the speed of the machine you're connected to and the overall load on the Internet at that time.

Cable detractors say that, since cable bandwidth is shared, an increase in the number of subscribers will slow down the average connection speed as well, but cable access companies like Roadrunner and @Home point out that segmenting their networks into manageable nodes solves this problem. In almost a year of cable access, I've never experienced a slowdown, but time will tell, I suppose.

Also, though cable modems are capable of T1 speeds for 56K access prices, the current modems are using only a portion of the possible bandwidth. Expect to see faster cable modems and faster cable access in the near future.

The best part about cable is that cable access companies have gotten the Internet pricing religion. In Phoenix, cable access is $45 a month if you lease their cable modem. Should you decide to buy your own cable modem (right now they run about $500), the cost is only $30 a month. When you consider that the cost of a local ISP and a second phone line is $40 in Phoenix, you'll see that this is the deal of the century. There is no bizarre pricing scheme, either: you aren't tied into any multi-month deals. And since your cable company will be your access provider (obviously), you won't need to pay another $20 a month for an ISP.

DSL is positioning itself as a competitor to cable, but in all fairness it doesn't even come close. DSL fits into an odd performance range that places it above most modems, about even with ISDN, and far below cable. DSL access also offers a mind-numbing range of features of costs, at least in Phoenix. Worst of all, you must sign up for a year of access.

To get DSL access in Phoenix, you need to have phone lines that support the service. This can be determined with a simple phone call, but the bad news is that potential customers with "unfit" lines are out of luck: US West will do nothing if your lines don't meet their unspecified requirements. At that point, you can choose from three options: a 192Kbps service that costs $65 a month, a 320Kbps service that costs $82 a month, or a 704 Kbps service that's a whopping $145 per month. Compare this to cable's 3 MBps (3,000Kbps) peak speed and you can see the problem. The price issue is further compounded by US West's install pricing. A cable modem install costs only $50 (or $150 if you need a network interface card) while US West charges $200 to $500+ depending on the service you request.

DSL does offer some interesting features, however. Like cable, you have an "always on" connection. When you boot up your computer, you're online. Since DSL works with a normal phone line, you're essentially getting a second phone line with DSL: you can transmit voice and data simultaneously.

The connection you get with DSL is often misunderstood. For example, the 192 Kbps "low end" connection is not steady; that is, you don't always get that speed. 192 Kbps is a peak speed that will rarely be reached. Also, the connection isn't shared with other users, as is a cable modem connection. DSL advocates often point to cable's shared connection as a downfall while US West guarantees that its users will be able to access a dedicated amount of bandwidth. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to test DSL yet. Everyone I know who can't get cable also can't get DSL, and no one in their right mind who could get cable would opt for DSL.

So why would anyone want DSL? Well, I'm suspecting that most DSL customers are unaware of the obvious benefits of cable over DSL. On the other hand, DSL is available in a much wider area in Phoenix than cable is right now, so its more readily available. People living in Phoenix who want high speed access but can't wait for cable will turn to DSL. Given the high prices, lower bandwidth, and the fact that US West requires you to sign on for at least twelve months at a time, I can't really recommend DSL.

So if you're looking for cheap, high-speed Internet access, you know where to go. If you do come to Phoenix, look me up. I'll be the guy with that ear-to-ear grin, playing Quake and loving life.

For more information about high speed Internet access in Phoenix, check out one of the following Web pages:
  U.S. Megabit Services
  Cox @Home