High-Speed Internet – The Final Few Yards
Ten years ago, cable companies offered the premier solution for consumers looking for the fastest connection to the Internet. Compared to their next best competitor, the ubiquitous dial-up services, cable companies looked like the light beckoning us to them. A decade later, we have more choices than ever, with some companies promising speeds meant to leave the cable companies in the dust, or at least give them a run for their money. While the choices could boggle the mind, those that hold the most promise still come through our telephone lines. Depending upon what part of the country, or more precisely, how far in the country, you live, you may have heard of, or subscribed to, either Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) or High-Speed Dial-up Internet services.
The availability of DSL service still depends on the telephone companies' infrastructure. Tens years after the Telecommunications Act, that helped financed its expansion, DSL may not be available in your area. Just like cable Internet service, DSL requires a special modem. Alternatively, High-Speed Dial-up relies upon the traditional modem over telephone lines that helped make the Internet a reality. Of course, even with its software compression slight of hand, dial-up pulls a distant second to either DSL or cable modem service. However, it is an inexpensive and accessible conduit to the world wide web.
Still, this article is not a primer on the latest Internet Service Provider (ISP) technologies available to Joe Consumer. Rather, I'd like to talk about how to get the most out of those Internet Service Providers coming through your phone line, because DSL and dial-up customers may not be getting their money's worth. If the telephone wires between your computer and the box where the phone company enters your home is not the right type of wire, you will only get a small fraction of the service for which you pay. If your home was built even ten years ago, the telephone wiring probably looks much like what Alexander Bell might have installed a century ago. Each telephone jack is spliced into a giant loop of wiring, running through your home, made of pairs of single strand, 22-gauge, solid copper wire. Ten years ago, that was an acceptable solution. After all, the telephone line was typically used for one or two things, either talking to friends, family, and associates, or prowling the Internet with the aid of fairly slow modems. Never at the same time.
However, the phone companies have been installing a different wiring solution up to our homes, long before 1996. To ensure the high quality service, the phone company installs Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) cabling such as category 5, or CAT5, up to our homes. UTP such as CAT5 reduces noise on the phone line. If you've ever picked up a phone line in a home with traditional telephone wiring and had someone else pick up a second phone on the same line in the house, then you've probably experienced the undesirable effects of electrical interference, or, if you prefer, noise. CAT5 cabling in conjunction with structured wiring greatly reduces noise over phone lines. Just like a phone conversation, with a bad connection, a noisy Internet connection requires the computers to keep saying to one another, “Heh, what'd you say?” Less noise on the line means Internet connections are cleaning and faster. The absence of CAT5 over those last few feet of phone connection can make the difference between getting what you paid for or settling for what you get.
If you're uncertain what's between your computer and the telephone company's connection, ask your electrician, telephone technician, or computer consultant. Checking the wiring is a quick and easy task and might save you a lot of time and money in the future. Most hardware and electronics stores selling communications and telephone installation equipment have CAT5 cable available for installation. High-Speed Dial-up may only cost $5 to $15 a month. However, if the connection still only runs at 18 Kbit/s, instead of the 28 or 56 Kbit/s of which the modem is capable, then you're still running at something far less than full speed – probably one-third to one-half your potential. Let's face it, ten dollars is still ten dollars.
CAT5 has two successor, CAT5e and CAT6. However, the speeds achievable by these communication cables is far beyond anything offered in the United States to the home market. Therefore, the added expense of installing them for Internet connection in your home is not yet warranted. One final note, category 3 (CAT3) has also been used in the past to create improved Internet communications and is capable of supporting currently available Internet speeds. It looks very much like CAT5 to the untrained eye, but is clearly stamped as CAT3. It's effective distance of 100 feet and upper speed of 10 Mbit/s limits it usefulness in Internet communication in the foreseeable future. If you have CAT3 already installed, then you may be able to get the most out your web surfing, for now. Otherwise, invest a few extra dollars into having the CAT5 installed.