The one hard and fast rule of the Internet is that speed is king.
tion of the World Wide Web. Dave Dorn looks at the cost versus speed considerations of linking up to the Internet. The faster you surf and browse pages, the quicker you find information, which, after all, is why you are surfing the web in the first place - isn't it? But to many, their experience of the World Wide Web is more like a World Wide Wait.
The quicker your web connection, the less time you waste waiting for the hour glass to disappear when you click on a hypertext link. If there is one rule of business, it's that time is money, and an employee waiting for the Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator hour glass to go away is not making the best use of company time.
To date, fast connections to the web have been extremely costly and anyone, be it a small business, an individual or a larger company, looking to make a connection to the Internet must take account of the cost versus speed considerations that are sure to dog their entry.
So the question is, what is the best method of accessing the Net if, indeed, there is one? There are three major options:
- Modem: the current state of the art being X2 and K56Flex based units - essentially analogue at either end, with a digital bit in the middle.
- ISDN: where the speed you get depends on your ISP and how many bonded channels your provider will allow you to use - essentially digital right through.
- Leased line: a different kettle of fish for most people, but allowing 24-hour access to the Net for all personnel, usually at a fixed fee - for the line, at any rate. Essentially digital.
- Cable Modems: not available to everyone, since cable is not as widespread as you might think. Essentially a digital system allowing 10Mbps downstream and 768Kbps upstream.
No matter what technologies a company opts for, there are establishment costs to be borne. For the simple analogue modem option, these are limited to the cost of the exchange line installation, by BT or another telecom provider, and the cost of the modem itself. Today's state of the art modems - the X2 and K56Flex based units - currently retail at anywhere between #99 and #199.
As for the telephone line, if one already exists BT will reconnect it for #8.50. A full BT exchange line installation costs #99 (#49.50 until the end of the year for a new BT exchange line).
For ISDN, the equation is the same: the installation cost of the ISDN line, plus the cost of the ISDN Terminal Adapter (TA), or, for a business with multiple users, the cost of a router.
A router provides a way for users to make an Internet connection directly from a local area network without requiring terminal adapters or modems on their local PCs. Terminal adaptor and router costs vary from around #99 for a simple internal TA with few bells, and whistles up to #1,000 plus for routers.
Leased lines are a complex animal to cost out, in that the installation costs are not fixed. The line bandwidth and the start and end point of the line have to be considered before BT is able to price up and complete an installation. Individual sites require separate quotes, and then you have to consider the data throughput such a site will expect to generate in order to do the calculations.
Cable is somewhat different. If your location is already served by a cable company then, because of its nature, the establishment costs are likely to be limited to the acquisition of a cable modem - something like Motorola's Cyber-SURFER. If, however, you need to have a cable connection installed, and the cable companies are not currently cabling your area, the bill could be astronomical. Figures as high as #75 per foot have been banded about. And it's very difficult to get a quote without a survey.
If you don't already have cable, it's probably going to be very expensive to install it, at least until a company is actively selling to your location.
The final consideration is cellular data which entails accessing the Internet via a mobile phone. In theory, such a connection should be trouble-free, given that cellular data is digital from end to end. But with a current top speed of 9600bps, it's not a technology that should be considered for everyday use.
Once you have your connection method specified, you still have to establish an Internet connection with an ISP.
For an ordinary dial-up account, which is the most popular way to connect to the Internet, charges vary between the ubiquitous 'tenner a month' to around #15, usually including unlimited access time for that amount.
A routed connection, where the ISP manages the Internet accounts for all users, can work out extremely costly - unless there are a large number of Internet users. For instance, BTnet has an annual charge of #3,000 for its standard ISDN connection. But it is well worth comparing this price to the cost of individual users on the network having their own ISP accounts at #10 to #15 per month - the crossover point is easily calculated.
For offices with small networks, there is another alternative which some people refer to as a spoofing TA. It must be said, however, that many ISPs are not over-enamoured by this form of Internet access.
Simply put, spoofing TA is a terminal adapter/router that is connected to an ISP-using one with only one IP address. It then 'spoofs' the required IP addresses which the rest of the network can use. This kind of router can be used on a single user account and is obviously a much cheaper alternative to full routed accounts. Hence the reason why some ISPs don't like them.
Data throughput versus call costs
Given that the establishment costs of the major technologies involved in Internet access are relatively simple to calculate, the next variable that needs to be addressed is one of data throughput.
Not unnaturally, users want to get the best possible value from their connections, so where can they find the price breaks? It's evident that for a given amount of data throughput, 28.3Kbps modems do not come close to ISDN, which is guaranteed to give 64Kbps throughput.
The attraction, however, of the new breed of 56Kbps modems appears great.
On the face of it, a shortfall of 8Kbps is almost negligible over a year's usage and even less over longer periods. But this is assuming that 56Kbps throughput is readily available at all times, which, after repeated tests, proves to be the case very rarely. BT engineers say that 33.6Kbps is attainable on 99% of BT exchange lines, but confirm that 56Kbps modems are subject to variations in service. It's also worth noting that, although an initial connection via a 56Kbps modem may be made at, say, 52Kbps, this class of modem is very sensitive to line quality and often retrains down a notch or two in terms of speed.
In most other cases, the observed maximum speed is in the order of 8Kbps less than that rated. Moreover, in the case of X2, the maximum upstream speed is considerably less than the downstream speed, so if data uploads are to be done regularly, or, indeed, if the user is maintaining a remote web site, the figures in our table for X2/K56Flex are very optimistic and costings may need to be revised upwards by a factor approaching 20%.
In the final analysis, over a period of three years, and including establishment costs, ISDN offers the greatest flexibility. Assuming that the data throughput per user is in the order of 15Mb per day, costs are on a par with or less than the cost of X2/K56Flex modem. Of course, actual costs depend on the cost of the modem itself.
However, be warned. In reality, 15Mb per day total Internet usage is not very much. Averaged over 300 days per year, it represents a total of 4.5Gb per annum.
When you consider that many people have kept up with the various releases of Internet Explorer at an average of 5Mb or 6Mb per download from the Microsoft web site, 15Mb per day may be a conservative estimate for average usage. Also, multimedia technology such as video and audio streams can easily consume 15Mb of data in a matter of minutes.
Steve Biskupek is the senior technician with Ainsworth Spark Associates, a firm of chartered architects based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but with a global business. "We need to transfer large numbers of CAD files from one office to another, and we also are looking towards collaborative computing across national borders - it's much easier to sort out designs 'live' than passing notes back and forth." After some consultation from a local IT company, Ainsworth Spark decided to utilise the ISDN line that was already installed in its Newcastle offices, a line which had previously been largely unused, and certainly under-utilised.
"The speed is excellent," says Biskupek, "it's been a case of straight in, with no delay at all at any time." Ainsworth Spark, as a company, is new to the Internet, but it has already identified that with a lesser technology than ISDN, its Net usage would be compromised, such is the level of data throughput the company expects to achieve. "What I really like about ISDN is that it's, as you might say, Internet on demand - you simply click on what you want to see or do, and it happens straight away.
For us, that's exactly as it should be. It will also save us money - we can transmit plans and drawings to Paris, for instance, in the time it takes to send Email, for the cost of the call - couriers could be put of business this way!"
ISP:HHow Demon sees Internet standards
Demon Internet is one of the country's highest profile ISPs, with 120,000 registered users. It currently supports 33.6Kbps dial-up, ISDN and leased line operations, and has also installed test lines for 56Kbps technologies. According to James Gardiner, the company's marketing manager, Demon will only be supporting the ITU ratified 56Kbps standard. Why? "Because 56Kbps technology is not reliable right now," he told PC Week, "but ISDN is the way of the future."
Around 10% of the Demon user-base connects via ISDN. "With ISDN you don't only get faster uncompressed data throughput rates, you're also looking at return journey rates that are around a third of the time it takes for analogue modems. And then there's the handshaking time. The connect time to read your mail might be a few seconds, but with a modem, you get up to 30 seconds of handshake before the connection proper is made - and it all adds to the time you spend on-line. With ISDN, the connection is almost immediate, usually less than a second which, over time, keeps call costs down."
And of spoofing routers, Gardiner said: "People can use them. We have no way of knowing until they let a stray IP address slip through. We offer a Network Dialup User account which allows up to 250 users on one 64Kbps ISDN router, at #100 a month - and we offer support for that. If the user can't make it work, we help them." The cost includes domain names and mail, multiple users and seems like a bargain compared to some other systems.
Demon Internet seems committed to ISDN as a technology, and, indeed, will be re-enabling 128Kbps channel bonded access in the future.
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