There is a war out there amongst broadband providers, to be the fastest pipe in town. Things have really changed over the past 10 years. Ten years ago I was working for Livingston Enterprises, an access server and router vendor (we made the PortMaster product line) that sold primarily to ISPs. At the time the high-speed modem revolution was just picking up steam – Lucent/Rockwell with K56Flex (itself a combination of Lucent’s V.flex2 and Rockwell’s K56Plus proposals) vs. US Robotics X2. Instead of 33.6Kbps you could get up to 56Kbps downstream speeds! Wow! Yeah, that was really a big deal at the time. Eventually the V.90 56Kbps spec unified the warring fashions, and it was bumped with V.92 a while later, but by then not many people really cared. (I could still give a talk on Pulse Code Modulation modems and how they work, I had to explain it countless times to clients back then.)
Around the same time I was using ISDN to connect from home. Livingston paid for it (good thing, it was astoundingly expensive), and I thought it was hot-shit to have a 128Kbps connection. More than twice as fast as the best modem connection, and reliably 128Kbps – no negotiation and such as with modems. Oh boy!
We had a couple of employees who lived in an area that was one of the first testbeds for the new-fangled cable modems. I remember they had a lot of headaches getting them working at first (this is before DOCSIS and standardized modems, you got one from the cable MSO just like the STB). IIRC, connections were something like 500Kbps, maybe 1Mbps. They reported that they worked great at first, but as more and more people in the neighborhood signed up, performance dropped. It was especially back in the 17:00-20:00 period as people got home from work and logged in before prime-time TV watching hours. But it was still amazingly fast.
At this point I can’t remember the last time I made an honest to goodness modem connection. I think it was back in 2000, maybe 2001. My Treo’s EDGE data connection regularly hits over 200Kbps, and that seems slow. (18 years ago I was happy with my ‘fast’ 2400bps modem…)
So why the trip down memory lane? Well, the never-ending march of technology has carried us a long way in a relatively short time. For a while telcos, with DSL, and cable companies, with cable broadband, were fairly equivalent combatants. Out of the alphabet soup of DSL services (IDSL, SDSL, HDSL, ADSL, VDSL) the one most consumers are familiar with is ADSL. ADSL generally offers speeds from 1.5Mbps to 9Mbps downlink and 128Kbps to 768Kbps uplink, 1.5Mbps, 3Mbps and 6Mbps are fairly common consumer ADSL speeds.
Cable companies settled in at basically the same speeds. 1.5Mbps, 3Mbps, and 5Mbps seem to be common. Sure, there are some 10Mbps offerings, but not as common.
It was basically a stalemate on performance. But then something changed – telcos started laying fiber. Verizon’s FiOS brings fiber into the home and allows speeds of 5Mbps, 15Mbps, even 30Mbps. Sure, 30Mbps is insanely expensive for a consumer connection, but the 15Mbps plan is reasonable. AT&T’s hybrid fiber/DSL U-Verse offering is still lagging behind, but they have plans to offer higher speeds in future updates. That’s put the pressure on cable companies to boost the speed of their offerings with new technologies like DOCSIS 3.0 which, theoretically, will allow speeds of up to 160Mbps with channel-bonding. (It is unlikely we’ll see speeds that high in homes anytime soon, but it means cable companies will be able to compete with fiber services.)
Competitive DSL service providers, like Covad, were feeling a bit left out. So they’re adopting the newer ADSL2Plus standard, which can theoretically support speeds of up to 25Mbps over short distances. (DSL speeds are inversely related to distance. The longer the copper run between the central office and the home, the lower the maximum possible speed, due to attenuation.) Covad will be offering 8Mbps, 10Mbps, and 15Mbps services, all with 1Mbps upstream speeds. That’s fairly competitive with FiOS’s 5/2Mbps, and 15/2Mbps services. Of course, price will be a key factor. Covad markets to businesses, and the services are priced at $150 to $195 month, out of the league of consumer services. However, ISPs such as Earthlink also resell Covad services to consumers, so pricing may be better through those resellers. And, as other DSL providers introduce ADSL2+ services, competition should drive the price down.
Covad will be introducing the new, faster service in 11 markets to start: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
In any case, speed is good. The future should be even more interesting as fiber services continue to spread, cable rolls out DOCSIS 3.0, DSL picks up speed, and WiMax and 4G wireless services begin to appear. It is a good time to be a geek.