After years of talking about it, telephone and cable companies are finally getting serious about offering high-speed, always-on Internet service for the home.
This is great news for computer users.
People who have fast Internet access at their jobs already know that a broadband connection transforms the online experience. Web pages pop on the screen instantly. Music files download in seconds. Streaming video isn't as jerky and is more like television, only the choices are more diverse.
A few weeks ago, I had a digital subscriber line service installed at my house. DSL runs over standard telephone lines and uses a special modem that connects to a personal computer.
Although I would have considered the rival cable modem service, which is faster than DSL under optimal conditions, it wasn't available in my neighborhood.
Since getting DSL, I've typically been connecting to the Internet at speeds 10 to 15 times faster than with my standard 56 kilobits-per-second dial-up modem, or between 600 and 800 Kbps most of the time.
I've been very happy with DSL, which so far has been fast and reliable.
But getting the service hooked up was a major headache. An installer failed to show up on three separate scheduled dates.
A spokesman with the service conceded that the service provider is scrambling to keep up with demand. He also apologized for the inconvenience and said my experience was highly unusual.
I signed up for DSL service with a company that charges $39.95 a month for DSL and Internet access. Under a promotion in effect at the time, the additional equipment and professional installation were free.
Since mid-May, my provider has been charging $99 for a technician to perform the installation. However, the company is in the process of rolling out a program in which it will send you a free self-installation kit. If I'd realized how simple the setup can be, I would have opted to do the work myself rather than waited around for the installer.
I did end up having to reinstall the DSL software after I'd run into some conflicts with an unrelated program and needed to reinstall Windows 98. The technician on the phone was helpful, walking me through each step.
Of course, DSL isn't the best value around when you realize that some companies are offering free dial-up Web access at 56 Kbps. But those services generally require users to look at extra advertisements, which many people find distracting.
Also, you can offset much of the cost for DSL by canceling a second phone line that you may have for a dialup modem. With DSL service, customers can surf the Internet and talk on the phone at the same time.
Just as important as the speed of a DSL connection is its constant availability. With DSL, I'm a more spontaneous Internet user at home, sitting at the PC for quick sessions and then leaving it because I no longer have to wait for it to dial in. I'm also able to leave streaming video running in the background while I work off line on a word-processing program.
If you live in an area where you have a choice between DSL and cable modem service, you should consider a variety of factors before deciding which you want.
One company has been running a TV advertising campaign that knocks cable modem technology, correctly pointing out that cable access speeds can slow to a crawl as more people in a neighborhood use the service. On the other hand, DSL technology only works in homes within about three miles of a telephone company's central office, the building that houses the equipment controlling phone lines.
As distances approach the fringe area, the connection gets slower. My house is about 13,500 feet from the nearest central office, according to my provider's spokesman, a distance that isn't considered close. But I've been satisfied with my connection speeds, which vary based only on traffic on the Internet in general.
The computer's processor and memory are big factors in improving the online experience. I'm using a fairly new machine, but owners of older PCs may not find it worth their while to upgrade to broadband without getting a new computer, too.
On either a Windows-based or Macintosh computer, my provider recommends a processor speed of at least 100 megahertz and a minimum of 32 megabytes of random access memory.
My provider offers the necessary network interface card, which home PCs don't generally have, in addition to the DSL modem. You can easily install a network card yourself with a screwdriver.
Finally, PCs that are always connected to the Internet are more vulnerable to hacker attacks.
Most experts recommend that broadband users consider installing a firewall program, which is software that constantly monitors an Internet connection and blocks intruders from gaining access to your computer.
My provider doesn't recommend or support any particular firewall program, though the company suggests that users explore the option.
Another security option is to turn off the network connection when you don't need Internet access, considering DSL an "always available" connection rather than "always on." The connection can be re-established in just a second or two. Meanwhile, my provider uses what are called "dynamic IP addresses." That means each time you sign on, you will get a new identity through a temporarily assigned Internet Protocol address, making it harder for a hacker to make you a target.