Internet Service Providers are *not* created equal

A couple of years ago I was talking to older fellow who said his Satellite internet connection was a “1500 GB per second download” account.  (At that speed he could download a full-length HD movie in about 1.5 seconds.)  I didn’t have the heart to correct him.  He was just so excited about how fast he was going… only thing was, he wasn’t going “1500 GB per second.”  In fact, he was going 1/1000 that speed.  So I though it might be useful if you had a better grasp of what speeds are available from different services, starting from the slowest and moving through the fastest.


Good old faithful dial-up.  My first Modem.  Incidentally, modem was a word derived from “modulate, de-modulate,” referring to the fact that the information was being added to a carrier signal on one end (modulating) and being removed and used on the other end (de-modulating.)   Anyhow, early modem speeds were referred to “baud” speeds.  So, for instance, a 9600 baud modem would be capable of 9.6 kbps (read as 9 point 6 kilo bits per second.)  Over the years they kept getting faster until about 15 years ago the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped it at about 53 kbps.  How nice of them.  At that speed it would take about 13 minutes to download an song from the internet.  Ouch!

BTW, dial-up is still just as relevant as always.  When Egypt shut off the internet service recently one of the only ways folks were able to get news, pictures and videos out of the country was through old-school backup data lines via dial-up.

Bits versus Bytes

An aside: bits and bytes are not the same.  There are 8 bits to each byte.  Think of Bytes as an atom (or a minivan, if that makes more sense) where the atom would have 8 electrons (or the minivan having 8 passengers all going crazy from the noise.)  It is somewhat important to understand the different because bits are represented by a small “b” and bytes are represented by a capital “B”.  You’ll often see speeds represented either one or the other, which can sometimes be confusing.  😦


Digital Subscriber Line was pretty impressive… in the 80’s and 90’s.  Near the late 90’s it became less cost prohibitive so folks were starting to jump at the higher speeds.  There is a wide variance of speeds but they generally range from 768 kbps (about 15 times faster than dial-up) to about 7 Mbps (150 times dial-up.)  For those faster speeds, though you’re really paying out a lot.  7 Mbps is more a “theoretical max” meaning it has the capability, but “real-world” speeds “may vary.”  Don’t you hate when they say that in the fine print?  Unlike dial-up, DSL is subject to availability based on your location.  So if you’re on dial-up and wanting to upgrade you’ll have to check with an internet service provider (ISP) like Verizon first.

Satellite ISP

Stay away.  Just don’t get involved.  Why?  Too many reasons to count, but the topping the list are price, speed (or lack thereof) and susceptibility to weather conditions.  Satellite ISPs usually start at $70 a month and for speeds that are slower than DSL.  Half the speed for twice the cost.  Fail.  Oh, and the weather?  If it’s raining, snowing or even a little foggy out you might just loose your connection. Double Fail!  There is one more reason and that is the data cap that’s always associated.  With today’s media heavy internet becoming more feature-rich every day, it won’t be difficult to blow right through the typical 5 GB/month download cap.  That may be a lot of pictures, songs and email, but if you watch even one movie, you’ll be at risk of being penalized.

Cable Modem

The workhorse of the internet at home.  Cable Modems started becoming more prevalent in the late 90’s and have continued to grow very quickly.  They’re relative low cost (most of the time you can get one for less than $50) and relative high speed make it the delivery method of choice.  Even though max theoretical speeds can get to 100 Mbps the internet providers are still catching up actually delivering that speed.  In my area, you can get basic cable internet service for about $45 for speeds up to 6 Mbps.  Thats’s fast enough to download an HD movie in a little less than an hour.  Not too bad!  Songs take just a few seconds each.   Websites load within 10 seconds (usually.)  The only problem occurs when there are a lot of people surfing and downloading at the same time.  If you think of the cable as a water supply, it will help you understand.  Ever take a shower and someone, somewhere else in the house flushes the toilet.  Surprise!  The water changes temperature because that precious balance of cold and hot became disrupted by the flow of water elsewhere!


The hot-rod of internet service.  You may have heard it referred to as FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) but there are some other names like FTTx (Fiber to the location), Passive Optical, Optical Transport Network, etc.  It all based on the same premise: digital data over an optical cable.  Because light operates at very high frequencies it is capable of moving data very quickly.  Over the years, the technology and materials have also increased in capability.  Once again, however, the “bottle neck” is the company providing the internet.  I’ll use Verizon as an example.  A friend of mine has FiOS and easily obtains data rates of 25 Mbps download.  That’s pretty fast.  However FiOS should be capable of speeds closer towards 100 Mbps.  Their architecture hasn’t quite matured yet so there are places in between the source and his house that just aren’t capable of pushing data that fast.  No matter: at 25 Mbps you’re still downloading “at the speed of light.”  Sorry, I couldn’t resists.  One can download a movie in about 10 minutes.  Songs are just about instantaneous!  Monthly costs?  Not too much different than a Cable Modem.

So what’s the catch?  Availability.  FiOS is available in very limited areas.  If you get it, color me envious.  🙂

Posted in Internet

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