January 30, 1996
Small Pennsylvania Town Discovers
That Cable Modems Alter On-Line Life
By ASHLEY DUNNPHRATA, Penn. - For the past six months, Dwayne MacKenzie, a networking consultant here, has been one of a few hundred people in the nation lucky enough to sample the Internet through the giant maw of a cable modem - a box that connects through the coaxial lines that bring cable television into millions of homes.
While his friends have been plodding along at a pedestrian 28.8 kilobits per second, MacKenzie has been blazing away at up to 20 times that speed like the proud owner of a Ferrari in a world of Yugos.
In a recent demonstration of his rule of the road, he proudly downloaded the 4-megabyte Hot Java browser in a just a couple of minutes. Pressing on, he began another 4-megabyte download from a different site. This time, however, his computer ground to a crawl, with the transfer rate plunging to even slower than modem speeds. After checking his connection, he assigned blame for the delay on a bottleneck somewhere beyond his local cable network: a slow host server or just general congestion on the Net.
"This is what really annoys me about dealing with the Internet," MacKenzie scowled at the computer. "The Internet just isn't set up to handle everyone with 500-kilobit modems."
Cable modems have been touted as the greatest gift to computer users since the invention of the floppy disk, but what has become apparent for those who have actually used them is that they are neither the panacea that cable companies have made them out to be, nor the technological boondoggle that their detractors have claimed.
They can, at times, be maddeningly typical of hardware in their tricky setup and sometimes cranky navigation of the on-line world. But fans like MacKenzie say that cable modems open a new world of broadband access that subtly redefines computing.
It's not just the speed of the cable modem - even the slowest of which can achieve transfer rates of 500 kilobits per second - that changes the nature of computing, but also the constant access they provide.
Like the cable box on top of a television, cable modems are always connected. Being permanently on line, with no need to dial up a service provider, means that at any given moment the Internet is as immediately accessible as your computer's hard drive or CD-ROM. "To me, on line and off line just don't exist anymore," said MacKenzie, who decided after several months of using a cable modem that there was simply no reason to turn off his computer any more. Even when he is away from his desk, the computer sits in his study, blinking in sleep mode, a window ever open to the outside world. He hasn't broken his Internet connection since September.
Web sites and e-mail have become as immediately available as any application on his desktop.
"I always thought of computers like they were tools," MacKenzie said. "Like a hammer - when you need it, you go pick it up off the shelf. Now, it's more like a library or an encyclopedia that's always ready when I need it."
Cable modems also make a different type of connection to the Internet. Unlike dial-up SLIP or PPP connections, cable modem systems can be configured to resemble a local area network, only much larger - sometimes covering hundreds of square miles.
On MacKenzie's computer screen, other computers on his network - the local school, the cable company and a few of his neighbors - show up as icons. Most are protected by passwords, but on those that are not he can access files and programs as if they were his own computer. He can even use their peripheral components, like printers or CD-ROM drives.
The dark side of this new relationship is that without proper security precautions, anyone could snoop in his computer.
But he added: "It's still a plus for me. I feel very lonely now. I have all this capability and no one to share it with."
The most over-hyped aspect of cable modems is their speed, which cuts a broad range from a snail's pace to warp speed, depending on a variety of factors.
When they are unhindered by congestion or server delays, the modems are undeniably fast. MacKenzie, for example, accesses America Online through the Internet, downloading news or messages with barely a hint that they are being sent from a distant computer.
Donald Bierly, another cable modem user here in Ephrata, said the increased speeds had also shifted his perception of the Internet - once a segregated world split between fast and slow sites. Now, like someone who just got their drivers' license, he said he has been liberated.
"I'm an explorer, and now I'm free to follow these links," he said. "It's a window into the greater world around you."
The biggest problem with cable modems is that they rarely reach their top speeds. The fastest are now capable of achieving transfer rates of 10 megabits per second. Individual users, however, see only a fraction of that, since they must share the total bandwidth with others on their local network.
What's more, much of the blazing horsepower of cable modems is wasted on the Internet, where servers with 56,000 bits-per-second connections are common. The modems are also notoriously sensitive to interference from everything from hair dryers to radios.
The solutions to dealing with interference and with the speed bottleneck all fall into the mega-dollar category.
For example, the @Home Network, a joint venture between the cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. and the Silicon Valley venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, is proposing to create a new fiber-optic cable backbone and a network of servers that would cache much of the Internet to speed up access times.
One of the most daunting problems facing the cable companies has more to do with public perceptions than with money or technology: how can an industry renowned for its pitiful service transform itself into a service-oriented business that can help customers navigate the tricky waters of the Internet.
Here in Ephrata, the local cable company, Blue Ridge CATV, has been able to lavish attention on its customers precisely because it has only a few dozen cable modems installed. In one case, the company sent five technicians to a customer's house to set up its first modem to run under Windows 95.
Whether cable companies in larger markets will be able to mimic that level of service and maintenance is still a question.
But MacKenzie said he believed that with the arrival of the next generation of cable modems and with the growing experience of cable companies, many of the service problems will evaporate.
"If little Blue Ridge Cable in Ephrata, Penn., can do it," MacKenzie said, "anyone can."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company