The ability to get on the Internet while at home, whether to check
your office e-mail or to do some research related to your job, is
becoming increasingly important.

If you are like many Canadians, you’re doing so through a 28K or 56K
modem, and may be wondering whether to upgrade to one of the new
“high-speed Internet” offerings from a telephone or cable company.

More than likely, you’re confused about which one to choose.

Ignore the advertisements, as much of what is being said doesn’t
quite ring true.

Indeed, the advertising battle between telephone companies and
cable firms is intensifying all over the world, and often stretches
reality to a huge degree. Case in point — the delightfully funny series
of TV commercials from Pacific Bell. (People are sharing them via
e-mail; if you haven’t seen them, you can download them from the
http://www.adcritic.com Web site. Simply do a search for Pacific
Bell.)

The four commercials build a story around the terrible things that
happen to people in a nice, quiet suburban neighbourhood when they
start sharing access to the Internet using cable modems. Indeed,
there can be no better cinematic moment than the scene in which a
five-year-old is screaming at a middle-aged man, calling him a “Web
Hog.”

Pacific Bell is applying the same marketing message used by
telephone companies worldwide: Cable modems — shared — bad.
Asymmetrical digital subscriber lines (ADSL) — not shared — good.

Is that true? Well, not in my case. I’ve got both systems. And the fact
is that I regularly get connections of 350 to 400 kilobits per second
through my cable modem, but only 30 to 70 kbps through my ADSL
connection. (Compare that with the 3 kbps or so that I get through a
dialup modem connection.)

Does that mean cable modems are faster everywhere? Probably not
— I often talk to people elsewhere who get fast ADSL performance,
and whose neighbours get slower cable modem performance.

The reality with either method of high-speed access is this — what
you get depends on where you live. Both technologies are good, both
have an upside and both have problems. To assess what is best in
your neighbourhood, you need to understand some factors that affect
the quality of each service.

First, there is the quality of the cable/telephone system infrastructure
in your neighbourhood — these companies are spending millions to
upgrade their systems, and so one may simply be better than the
other depending on where you live.

Second, in the case of ADSL, your speed performance may be
influenced by how far you live from “central office” — the farther you
are, the slower it may be. Third, in the case of cable modems, your
service may be affected if you do have a whole bunch of cyberdweebs
in your neighbourhood who spend their entire life on-line. But that
could change if cable companies reconfigure their networks to
minimize such problems.

Notice how I’ve used the word “may” a lot. There are no absolutes
when it comes to comparing the attributes of each service. And
finally, keep this in mind — you could find that the performance of
either alternative changes dramatically tomorrow, as lots of money is
being spent on upgrading both networks.

The most important point is this — if you are still chugging along using
a dial-up modem, don’t leave yourself in the dark ages of connectivity
— choose at least one or the other. The improved speed will provide
you with a whole new Internet.

Ask around your neighbourhood to find out who is using cable
modems and who is using ADSL. Ask about the performance that
each is getting, and use that to help determine which technology to
choose. After all, the cable-versus-telephone fight may be global, but
the battles are occurring on a neighbourhood basis.