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Deciding on DSL

March 22, 1999
by Mark Castle

My wife and I run our business from our home, where we have two rooms converted to office space. In our offices, we have a small LAN with separate modems sharing a phone line for internet access. Fast access has been a dream with very little substance. Since I handle most of the technical issues, it was up to me to determine how to get the LAN connected so that all the machines had a high speed connection and we no longer had to yell "Are you on the modem line?" back and forth. Our options for high speed connection were ISDN, cable modem, or DSL.

I nixed ISDN because it was such a variable in terms of monthly price, and came with a sudden bunch of ambiguous and expensive additions when looking into the installation.

Cable modem is very attractive since it has enormous download speeds. The upload isn't as fast, but almost anything is going to beat an analog modem. The deciding factor on this was the provider: TCI (in conjunction with / at / Home Networks). Their reputation for customer service leaves much to be desired, and we needed a professional level of service even if we aren't one of the Fortune 500.

DSL became the only real technology that would provide us with higher throughput without both breaking the bank and placing us at the mercy of a consumer-minded bureaucracy like TCI or PacBell. I did not want to call and have a service tag generated that promised a technician in a week to ten days "between the hours of 8 am and 6 pm".

A little-advertised fact is there are two types of DSL service for the masses. One is ADSL, or Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line, and the other is SDSL, or Synchronous. The former has differing upload and download speeds and is cheaper, and the latter mainly targets large businesses that rely on a certain bandwidth in either direction. Virtually all the ISPs I spoke with dealt in ADSL.

I started visiting websites for ISPs that provide DSL service, and reading the ba.internet newsgroup everyday for a few weeks. Through this, I discovered that within the DSL arena, there are 3 suppliers of the actual service: PacBell, Covad, and NorthPoint. Even though PacBell has the most attractive monthly fee of $39.95 ($49.95 including their ISP service), I would be in that long line with other people waiting on the technician all day.

I could find no major difference in the actual service between the two remaining DSL providers. Yes, they had differing areas of coverage, had partnered with slightly different ISPs, touted not-quite-the-same line speeds, and occasionally used different hardware to connect. Once installed, both seemed on par. Those items of disparity were what I needed to clarify in order to understand the whole process.

The remaining issues to solve were

Which dependable ISP had partnered with either Covad or NorthPoint?

We already had a dialup account with BEST Internet (now Verio), and had been happy with them for the most part. They offer DSL, but the prices and packages are more expensive than we wanted to pay. Many ISPs provide packages for web hosting, server space, email accounts, number of IP addresses, etc. Be sure to find out about the ISP before you sign up. They may have a great rate, but only have one network guy on staff. If their network goes down, so does yours. How friendly or helpful is the Technical support, how experienced are they with DSL? All the regular issues for finding a reliable ISP are the same.

What was it going to cost to install?

Installation "specials" commonly change every month at this point. Almost any ISP that offers DSL will have some current promotion. They'll offer to waive the installation or a percentage of the hardware cost, or perhaps lower the monthly if you sign a one-year contract. It's a lot like buying a cel phone at this point.

What hardware will connect my LAN to the internet?

This is a rather complicated topic. It depends a lot on how many machines you intend to have using the line, and how much administration you want to take on. For us, it was about four mixed machines, and as little MIS duty as possible. Most providers will talk about a router, but in many cases the router is actually a bridge (which costs less). The difference is that a bridge basically pokes a hole from your network into the internet. No muss, no fuss, no big configuration. You also have no security, typically a single IP address for the bridge, and only one machine connected to it. For us, the security and single machine made this an impossible combination.

A router (or sometimes a router/bridge) has a bit more hardware under the hood, usually with additional ports to plug more machines into (meaning you don't need a hub if you don't have one already), and the ability to add security via a firewall or using NAT (Network Address Translation). For larger companies, a firewall is a necessity, and is basically a shield between the internal organization and all the badguys trying to get in. It provides different layers of security for different protocols (http or ftp are among them), as well as maintenance that I frankly don't have time for. NAT has recently come down to consumer level and provides a simpler solution to the whole thing. You assign a single IP address to the router, and it hides the entire network behind it.

Depending on how it's configured, the router can use an internal scheme for keeping track of the IP addresses within the network, or assign them based on other criteria. Incoming traffic gets properly routed since the router knows who is who, and outgoing traffic all has the same IP address of the router. Chances of getting some 13 year old kid with a Jolt high hacking into your network are greatly reduced since the only public address is the router, which doesn't actually contain any data. You can use configuration software to poke holes in different ports to allow things like ftp access, on-line gaming, or video conferencing.

Some common bridges and routers I encountered in my research were;

Name Approximate cost ($)
SpeedStream 5250 499.00
FlowPoint 2200 550.00
Netopia R7100C 695.00
(aka RedRocket)

The prices reflect different capabilities and software for configuration and maintenance.

You also have the option of software to do the NAT routing. There are different solutions for Mac and Windows if you wish to configure one of your network machines to act like the hardware bridge or router. Check out IPNetRouter by Sustainable Softworks for Mac (, or WinGate by for Win machines ( I've used neither of these, preferring to have a dedicated piece of hardware deal with it instead of one of my machines that I'd need to keep on and manage. If you're interested in this option, both are purported to be excellent in addition to easy to use. They are also signifigantly cheaper if you have a machine available. IPNetRouter is $89.00, and WinGate is $79.95 for the 3 user version.

What was it going to cost to have the DSL service per month?

The rates for the DSL service are all over the board. As stated above, PacBell typically has the lowest at $39.95 a month. Others seem to range (at the time of writing) between $90 to $300+ depending on the speed of the connection and which provider you decide on. You might find one ISP that will offer a 144kbps/144 kbps (144 kbps upstream and 144 kbps downstream) for the lower end of the scale, and a 1.5Mbps/384kbps connection at the other end. Some ISPs offer SDSL at the high end. The top speed you can get is determined by your distance from the phone company's Central Office.

A note on line speed: the line speed given is the theoretical capacity and not the actual speed (the classic "your mileage may vary, we used a professional driver on a dry racetrack" thing). A 166K line is about three times as fast as a 56K modem. The analog modem has other types of problems resulting in delays and slower throughput. This translates to a speedup that doesn't exactly work with straight math. Assume you get 3K per second on your 56K modem, you might get 12K per second on a 166K DSL line because it's used more efficiently.

What was it going to cost to have the ISP?

On top of the fee for the DSL line, you have to consider what you want to pay (if anything) for ISP services. I will throw money at this one every time. I don't have any desire to run a mail server, a news server, host my own website, or deal with the other daily realities of becoming my own ISP. For $30 a month or less, you can have an ISP that will provide you with website space, a mail server you have access to, and other niceties like newsgroups. If you love doing it yourself, save the extra bucks and have fun with it. Make sure to think about what you need and what you're willing/able to do before opening your wallet.

What happens when the DSL connection goes down?

Just like backing up your hard drive (which we all do, right?), it's only a matter of time before something happens to the connection. In the parlance of those in the know, this is referred to as "fault tolerance", and will cost many rubles. It may have some catchy name like "Data Saver" or "Guardian Plan", but it basically means if the DSL line takes a dump you have access to your data, and they've been backing it up regularly. It might take the form of an ISDN connection (which you need to pay for even when you're not using it), or even a just a dialup so you can retrieve mail. After much agonizing over this, I had to pass on it. Brainstorm, the ISP I decided on, simply doesn't do dialup connections, and the other options are too costly. The upside is they have a built-in incentive to get up and running quickly: they credit back three times the amount of downtime towards your monthly fee. Also, if something really nasty happens, I can always dig out a modem and sign up with one of the dozens of ISPs that now pester everyone trying to get on-line.

Taken together, the whole process is a confusing array of terms, packages, and capabilities. It's important to keep in mind what it is you need the connection for, how dependable the connection needs to be, how much you want to spend, and what you're willing to do yourself. The availability is getting better, and the pricing is getting lower. It seems a good point to jump in and reap the benefits of a fast connection, while not being on the bleeding edge of technology.

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