Ready, Willing and Cable
The promise of cable-modem Web access is compelling: high-speed and low-cost data communications using your already installed television cable. But early providers-like Time Warner's Road Runner, Continental Cablevision's Highway 1 and @Home, a joint venture of TCI, Cox Communications and Comcast-are just beginning to build up their service areas.
Under optimum conditions, cable modems provide speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream-hundreds of times faster than conventional modems. Add unlimited Internet access for around $40 a month, and its appeal is evident.
Deployment has been slow in many areas due to the large initial expenses associated with upgrading cable plants to support two-way communications and the technical challenges of rolling out-and then adequately supporting-what is essentially an extended computer network.
Kinetic Strategies, publisher of Cable Datacom News and a recent study on the cable market, estimates 2 million homes were in cable-modem service areas as of March 1997. While only 19,000 consumers had actually signed up for cable-modem service, Kinetic anticipates that sign-up rates will increase tenfold by year's end and the current "islands of service" will continue to grow.
Where cable-modem service is available, setup is relatively easy. The cable operator typically provides the hardware-a cable modem and an Ethernet card that connects the modem to your PC. Right now, cable modems from companies like Bay Networks, Motorola and Toshiba are proprietary and only available from cable providers. But as standards for interoperability coalesce, a retail cable-modem market is likely to emerge.
Ironically, cable modems' amazing speed ends up highlighting just how pokey the Web is becoming. Overloaded Web sites and packet-dropping Internet hubs slow cable-modem users to the same crawl as everyone else-and cable-modem users often pay twice as much for the privilege. To compensate, providers are boosting their network connections, using caching servers and offering their own content.
Cable bandwidth is another performance issue. As more users hop on the shared bandwidths, cable performance suffers. While that may not be a problem now, it will be an issue as cable providers sign up thousands of new customers.
Some sophisticated users are also finding cable providers can't match the service options they can get from traditional ISPs. Finally, cable operators are just beginning to explore how businesses-which often don't have cable access now-will fit into their high-speed Internet service model. But for a growing number of people around the country, cable modems are the key to the information highway's fast lane.