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  PC-Net's PC News - October, 2001
Don Watkins

A New Look at Cable vs. DSL

By Don Watkins



October 2001--I had cable access very early on in my area, in fact I was the first non-employee install in Austin for Roadrunner (the Time-Warner cable service) and the results off the get go were outstanding; while the logon software was a huge pig I could achieve results of 4Mb on my test site.

That Was the Good, Now the Ugly

Sadly, as it usually is with many good things, that kind of speed didn't last. By the time my neighborhood was "built out" and I relocated I was lucky to get 128Kb on my test site, the minimum they promise you. Better than dial up, but not by much and very frustrating when you're used to 4Mb.

The DSL Story

DSL in Seattle wasn't great either. In retrospect I should have gone with an ISP and plan that stood behind a minimum level of throughput but hindsight is 20-20. Instead of the 1.5Mb down and 750k I was usually in the range of 800k/300k. Not bad, but certainly not close to what I thought I was buying.

Flashback to Testing

Allow me to digress a bit as I've been throwing around some testing numbers without explaining how I arrived at them. There are any number of testing sites on the Internet but my preferred method is a program called iSpeed which allows you to select an ftp site and a file and it will automatically track your download speed and keep a history.

Because getting out on the Internet subjects to you a lot of traffic variables that your ISP/connection can't control I used two ftp sites that were very few hops from either location; in Seattle I used the Microsoft ftp site and in Austin I used the Dell computer ftp site. Here's an example of how close the Dell site is in terms of a trace route:

1 16 ms 16 ms <10 ms
2 <10 ms <10 ms 15 ms
3 <10 ms 16 ms <10 ms
4 <10 ms 16 ms <10 ms
5 <10 ms 15 ms <10 ms
6 <10 ms 15 ms <10 ms
7 <10 ms 16 ms <10 ms []
8 <10 ms 15 ms 16 ms []
9 <10 ms 16 ms 16 ms []
10 <10 ms 16 ms 15 ms []
11 16 ms 15 ms 16 ms
12 * * * Request timed out
13 16 ms 15 ms 16 ms []
14 16 ms 15 ms 16 ms
15 16 ms 15 ms 16 ms []

I had a similar type connection to Microsoft in Seattle.

Flashforward to Now

I had really wanted DSL in Austin, mostly because of my 128kb experience and I run a modest server which is acceptable under almost all DSL agreements but is forbidden under the Time-Warner acceptable use policy. I talked to several DSL vendors and all assured me I could get 1.5Mb, no problem.

I was almost ready to sign up but I thought I'd check with a neighbor or two and sure enough, between the two they'd tried for DSL three times. Each time they were promised 1.5Mb but ended up with 128kb. Seems the tables the DSL providers use for distance to the central office isn't correct.

My favorite ISP, Speakeasy, did offer to try it for me and if it didn't work out to let me walk away, but I just didn't feel I could burn the time required to go through the install cycle, find out it didn't work and get in the cable install queue.

How Cable Has Changed

Firstly there was no install queue, I could have picked up the cable modem at the Time-Warner facility and installed it myself, but since I was getting TV cable and there wasn't a charge I had them bring it out.

Installation of the 3Com cable model was as simple as it gets; plug it in to the cable outlet via a standard co-ax connector, select a NIC or USB connection to the computer and power it up.

Nor is there any clunky software to install. Just tell networking to automatically obtain an IP address and change your connection type to LAN and that's it.


I had a casual conversation with a T-W tech and they admitted that they had some serious balancing problems that have since been resolved and my testing agrees with that. Oh, I don't get the 4Mb that I got when I was virtually the only user on the system, but in running a number of tests to the Dell site at all times of the day I get 2.7-2.8Mb, even during cable's "heavy load" periods.

No Server

The aforementioned AUP precludes a server. You can buy a static IP address, I'm not sure of the purpose of that since you can't run a server and T-W did refer me to their hosting service which was laughable; their prices and services aren't even in the ballpark, so I'll have to outsource even more of my server work to a hosting service, but overall I'm impressed with the changes over the past three years.

Until next time stay connected!

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