Living Fast 

High-speed cable internet comes to town

High-speed cable internet comes to town

A couple of months ago, probably the hottest commercially available connection to the Internet arrived in Nashville. Just how hot is the @Home Network? It’s many, many times faster than any dial-up service, and it’s about the quickest connection available anywhere, outside of a corporate private network. Perhaps the day isn’t quite here when the availability of a high-speed Internet connection factors heavily into a city’s “livability index.” But for those of us who spend at least part of our lives online, this is what we’ve been waiting (and waiting and waiting) for while our 28.8 and 33.6 modems crank.

The @Home Network is the product of InterMedia@Home, a 1995 alliance between InterMedia Partners IV, a cable company with 250,000 customers in Davidson and surrounding counties, and the At Home Corporation, a privately held high-tech company headquartered in Mountain View, Calif. InterMedia is one of roughly 80 cable companies nationwide that have launched commercial Internet-over-cable services. Currently, there are only about 35,000 Internet-over-cable subscribers across the country.

The @Home service, which began on a trial basis this August, is now generally available in the south and west parts of Davidson county. By June of next year, InterMedia@Home plans to deploy the service in all of Davidson county, moving into Williamson and Rutherford and the surrounding counties soon after. By that time, according to director of subscriber services Bill Haggarty, InterMedia’s service could be @Home’s third largest deployment in the U.S.

The InterMedia’s @Home service operates over a two-way, hybrid fiberoptic and coaxial cable network, asymmetrically configured. The lines connecting to the neighborhood “headends” (of which there are nine in Davidson Co.) and to the network “nodes” are completely fiberoptic. Each node serves anywhere from 500 to 1,200 homes. From the nodes to users’ cable modems, the lines are coaxial—the same lines that carry your cable TV signal. Data is carried downstream to the user over a broadband channel with a theoretical transfer rate of 1.5 megabits per second, while a lower-bandwidth return path carries commands and responses upstream with a theoretical transfer rate of 768 K/sec.

It’s important to note that none of this would have been possible if InterMedia hadn’t invested upwards of $50 million over the past two years to rebuild the Nashville coaxial cable plant to a full two-way cable plant. This redesign was done specifically to incorporate alternative services to traditional cable TV—among them, high-speed Internet access.

Like most other online service providers, InterMedia@Home offers 24-hour, unlimited access to the Internet and e-mail service. But @Home is a “connectionless technology.” Like cable TV, you’re always “on,” whether you’re logged on or not. Anyone who has ever had trouble connecting to his or her service provider should be able to appreciate this.

The service costs $44.95 a month for cable subscribers. Installation is $149.95, which includes an Ethernet card that allows your computer to talk to the Motorola CyberSURF modem, also included in the pricing package. The installation procedure is admirably complete and leaves you configured for e-mail as well. There are some minimum requirements for your computer system: a 486DX-2-66 MHz processor with Windows 3.1 or 95, or a Power PC using Mac OS 7.5.4 with 16 megabytes RAM. As with all published “minimum requirements,” you’d be better off doubling the recommendation.

Subscribers get It stores continually updated snapshots of popular Web sites on its server, allowing users to retrieve this information without having to wander out onto the congested Internet at large. @Home Network caches a number of the popular search engines, and it has gathered content from many sites and made it accessible through its own @Home Page. Content of local interest is also available under a separate heading. InterMedia says it expects both these areas to grow and change as it gets feedback from subscribers.

For all the talk about high speeds, anyone considering InterMedia@Home’s service should be aware that information doesn’t always travel quite as quickly as you might expect. The 1.5 megabits-per-second maximum download speed—“up to 100 times faster than a 28.8 modem,” according to InterMedia’s literature—is something subscribers will probably see only on rare occasion. So many contingencies and “your-mileage-may-vary” qualifiers must be attached to a max-speed figure that it’s hard to quote such numbers without resorting to hype. There are plenty of variables on your own computer that can limit download speed, but the ones you can’t do anything about—slow servers and Internet congestion—are the worst. “Even if you have a Ferrari,” Haggarty says, dipping into the favorite Internet metaphor, “you’re not going to be hitting top speeds in L.A. rush-hour traffic.”

That said, however, the “real world” performance of the @Home service will knock you out. Expect to be amazed at the way sites and pages simply pop onto the screen, and at the quickness of downloading. Even if you’re expecting high speed, it’s still astonishing. Downloading a 1 meg file from a high-tech Web site (one of Microsoft’s mirror sites, for instance) may take less than five seconds—at least according to my 1947 Bulova self-wind.

So how does @Home’s service compare to the other commercially available options? It’s hard to say, because there just isn’t much to compare it to. To match @Home’s speed, you’d have to go straight to a T1 leased line from BellSouth. But where technology is concerned, T1 is strictly a business solution. As for price, a T1 connection from BellSouth starts at $212 per month (plus an $845 installation fee) for an “unchanneled” point-to-point pipe. Keep in mind, though, that @Home and TI are not fully comparable.

Reliability of an online service may simply be a matter of convenience for the average consumer, but it’s a very big deal for small-business users. From my own admittedly brief experience, the @Home service has been rock solid in this regard—not even a quiver. (OK, I did have to reset the modem once—a 15-second operation.) With my previous ISP, even if I never had to contend with busy signals, connecting to the mail server was still a crap shoot; odds were 1 in 5 that I wouldn’t connect at all. Granted, I was using Windows 3.1, which for Internet communications is suspect at best. Yet no amount of back-and-forth with my very cooperative ISP ever achieved anything resembling reliability.

Purveyors of telecom Internet-access solutions counter that there are potential problems with cable-modem technology. Cable is a shared medium, they argue, meaning that users could experience less than optimal speeds as the network takes on more and more subscribers. It’s a valid point, but Haggarty has a ready response: “We vow never to let network performance fall below twice ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] speed—128 Kbps—even in the highly unlikely event that everyone on the system requested a file at the exact same moment.” That, we might assume, is as close as consumers will get to a warranty on a network’s performance.

So should you consider hooking up to the //www.baywatchtv.com/ )—you should certainly consider @Home . But if you’re a home-office or small-business Web user who needs to exchange largish files via e-mail, go ahead and sign up. You need this service.

Will cable-modem access take over the world? Probably not. Very few cable systems have upgraded their networks for two-way communications as InterMedia has done. (As of August 1997, estimates are that, out of some 73.1 million cable-TV subscribers in North America, only 3.4 million homes are even eligible to receive two-way cable modem service.) According to the Internet pundits and gurus, no single alternative high-speed access method will achieve dominance by the year 2002—and that includes various wireline technologies now in trial, plus satellite and other wireless options.

Will cable-modem access take over Nashville? Bill Haggarty would like that. But for now, InterMedia is looking for 2 to 3 percent market penetration by the end of the year and 5 percent by the end of the first year of service. Twenty percent penetration is a long-term goal. Getting there from here will not be easy for a number of reasons. But for those who need or just want reliable, high-speed access to the Internet, the wait is over. @Home is here.

Charles Conte can be reached at bmc@Home.com.

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