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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

The need for speed

Those of us who have been lucky enough to work or participate in higher education over the last ten years have experienced the leading edge of wide area networking, in particular, access to the Internet before it became a common commodity in the commercial world. We've seen the network extended to offices, classrooms and dorms, and our network connection progress from a thick coaxial cable to a telephone-style connector attached to a thin cable. Network speed on campus has increased from a data transfer rate of around 56 Kilobits per second to 100 megabits per second. Connections to the outside world have increased from 9.6 kilobits per second to an aggregate 90 megabits per second.

Why this need for speed? The speed of a data connection determines how much data can be transferred in the specified amount of time (sometimes referred to as "bandwidth"). Even ten years ago, most information being transferred on a data network was in the form of encoded text, one byte or eight bits per character. These days, we are sending and receiving multiple digital images, sound clips, and even movies and video conferencing session. All of the latter types of content require much greater amounts of data to represent them in a digital format. Whereas a paragraph of text might be represented in 600 bytes of information, a small photograph might require 600,000 bytes. In other words, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

Higher education networks are among the best developed in any industry, and have grown to be an integral part of the educational experience. As networks have developed, their use has increased and become more comprehensive, to the point now that whole courses, or even degrees, can be completed via a network source of information and interaction. High-speed networking is not a curious luxury of the higher education experience, but a strategic component of it.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Those of us who have access to the Internet at home have not experienced the same tremendous increase in operating speed that we've seen on campus. Many people are still using a dialup modem to access the Internet, and for a variety of reasons, that connection speed is frozen at a whopping 56 Kilobits per second. If you have a reasonably decent memory (just three paragraphs ago) you'll realize that 56 Kbps was our on-campus networking standard of 10-15 years ago. We are expecting picture content at word speed. There are several alternatives to dialup modem technology, but they cost quite a bit more and may not be available in your area.


The first tier up from a dialup modem is an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) telephone line. In combination with an ISDN modem, such a line can carry data at upload and download speeds of up to 128 Kilobits per second. ISDN may or may not be available from your local telephone company. It will cost as much as $40 per month. ISDN is still a dialup connection. You will still need to have an Internet Service Provider which in many cases will carry an additional charge. In most large cities, there are a number of ISPs which can accept an ISDN dialup connection. So, for about $50 a month or less you should be able to double your home Internet connection speed which can make quite a difference when you accessing those picture-laden web pages.

Cable modem

Cable modem is another available technology which provides Internet access at a higher speed. This is done via the same wire which brings cable TV service to your living room. It requires a special modem to connect to the cable line (one of those thick black coaxial cables), and provides an Ethernet connection to your computer. This will require that you have Ethernet hardware installed in your computer. Cable modem speeds are up to about 1.5 Megabits per second on downloads, and 128 Kilobits per second for uploads. Your download speed is also influence by who else in your neighborhood is using the service. The more people on line, the more data is being carried on that 1.5 Megabit connection. You are also usually limited to using the cable company's Internet Service. Total cost can be as much as $50 per month. The other catch is that if you don't have a cable company or your cable company cannot offer the service, you are out of luck.


The third common option for a higher speed residential Internet connection is Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). DSL service can transfer data at up to 1.5 Megabits per second for downloads and 128 Kilobits per second for uploads. Of course there is a catch. DSL is only available if your telephone company offers it and if you are close enough to their telephone switching equipment. DSL may also require new telephone wiring in your house. It will utilize a DSL modem and provide an Ethernet connect which can be connected to your computer. You may have a choice of service providers with DSL, however, there may be an extra cost associated with using an ISP which is not the same as the company providing the DSL service. Still, you can have a fairly fast connection dedicated to your use for about $50 per month.

Same song, different verse?

You might notice some similarities in the services described above. For one thing, upload speeds are all limited to 128 Kilobits per second. This probably not because of any particular rule, however, it is more likely to save money for the company providing the connection. Cable modem companies in particular prohibit running servers from your home
computer. If your web server became a hit, it could easily take up all of the bandwidth that a company is allowing for their residential connections. It is much easier for companies to anticipate download demand than upload demand. You can get faster upload speeds and the ability to run servers on your home connection, but you will pay considerably more for that "privilege."

To get any kind of reasonable Internet connection speed at home seems to cost about $50 (give or take a little). In some cases, like ISDN and DSL, these costs are still government regulated. In Texas and elsewhere, however, there is starting to be competition allowed for local phone service. What seems to be missing is a lot of direct competition between various connection technologies. In my case, DSL is not available, so I am left with Cable modem as the only choice for receiving a comparable download speed. I suspect that more direct competition would result in a lowering of prices for high-speed access.

The real problem, however, is that we lack up-to-date technology in residential areas. The phone and cable companies have been upgrading their distribution networks, but the line to your house is the same kind of copper wire that would have been easily recognized by Alexander Graham Bell himself. Add a little shielding from electromagnetic interference and you've got your basic cable TV wire. These 50-100 year old technologies have limits in our digital age. Houses are already being built that have fiber-optic cables run directly to them just like buildings on are college campuses are connected by a fiber-optic network. But, not all of us can move, just to get better networking. On the other hand, I can think of worse reasons to move.