Wireless Internet - The DSL Killer?

Today, when we talk about "wireless" in the computer networking space, the term now means more than just one thing. Most of the time, when people talk about a "wireless network", they mean Wi-Fi or 802.11x -- the ability to create a local area network using wireless access points, etc. Think Panera, where Wi-Fi hotspots have become the norm (very cool!). But as of a couple of years ago, this is not the only "wireless" in the game.

When I moved into my newly-built house in the (distant) northwest suburbs of Chicago three years ago, the first thing I wanted to get in place was high-speed internet access. Toward the end of the construction process, I finally got SBC (local phone carrier) to admit that they were not in fact going to be offering DSL (another story for another time), and the cable companies weren't there yet with their version of broadband either. So, I began to panic. I'm thinking, "Don't they know that I need my broadband!?!" No, I don't have a problem. I can quit any time. But until then...

I began to explore my options in earnest. It appeared that the only high-speed solution available was a satellite connection. In that world, nobody would tell me "it's not available in your area" and I had already climbed in bed with DirecTV anyway. So, their two-way satellite service (called "DirectWay") gave me hope... at first. But don't let the hype fool you... It was really expensive (at the time > $800 just for activation, equipment, etc), then a big monthly check (at the time > $100/mo). And the speeds are half what you get with DSL -- faster than dial-up (for download only), but not good. To be fair, their prices have come down a bit since then (to only $700 to start and $60/month), but the speed still stinks and I just couldn't get by the latency problem. What's that, you ask?

"Latency" is the time it takes a piece of information (a packet) to get from one end of the network to the other. This is different than the "speed" of the network, but still an important attribute. Speed is about how long the whole message takes to get somewhere (affecting, for instance, how long it takes to download a 1MB file). Latency is about the first packet, essentially affecting how long it takes to begin communication. Not a big deal if downloading a file, but it delays every individual interaction with the net -- like web surfing or playing games.

In the case of DSL or other terrestrially-based solutions, that time is negligible, because the electrons carrying your signal move roughly at the speed of light (about 186,300 miles per second). So, if your connection to the local phone company is a couple miles away (as with DSL), then the data you send over that connection gets there and back in like 21 millionths of a second. Pretty fast. Doubtful you'd fix a snack while waiting.

But for the satellite connection, the distance matters. The kinds of satellites used by DirecTV, Dish, DirectWay, and others are in geosynchronous orbit -- meaning that they are always in the same place relative to your position on the ground. This is what allows you to just point your satellite dish at one place in the sky and forget about it. The catch is that anything rotating the earth in geosynchronous orbit is about 22,500 miles above the surface of the earth (about 1/10th of the distance to the moon). So in this scenario, your signal doesn't just have to travel 4 miles to allow you to read your favorite TechLore article (as with our DSL example -- 2 miles there and 2 miles back), but rather 90,000 miles (the request for the page goes to the satellite and back to earth, then the response does the same -- 22,500 times 4). So, even though the signal moves pretty fast (again, 186,300 miles/sec), it would take a whole half second to make the trip this time.

That may not sound like a lot, but in computer terms it's an eternity. Besides, that's the minimum latency physically possible. The real story is that each packet you send will take over a second to get you the information you requested. Now, if you're browsing the internet, an extra second might not be that big a deal. But imagine having a built-in one-second lag in your favorite on-line first-person-shooter video game, etc. I just didn't want the hassle. And I didn't want to spend the money either, as we discussed.

So, I was afraid all was lost and was wallowing in my dial-up despair until I discovered a new company in the Chicagoland area called DLS. These guys offer a "wireless internet connection". This technology is similar to the two-way satellite connection, but without the satellite. You still put a dish on your roof, but it's much smaller, and instead of pointing it at a satellite 22,500 miles away, you point it to a line-of-site radio transponder on top of a water tower. And we're back in business. No latency problem. But how did the other variables stack up?

Well, cost was a little more than DSL, but not bad. I paid $100 for setup, and pay $65 per month. A little pricier than the $40/month you'll pay for standard DSL, but they don't offer DSL out here in the sticks where I'm at, so that's not a fair comparison. And you haven't heard the best part yet...

While DSL typically offers speeds somewhere around 1MB/s up and down (up = stuff you send to the internet like mail or browser requests, and down = stuff you receive from the internet like downloads from your favorite music store), my wireless service runs at 10MB/s -- a full 10x faster than most peoples' DSL, and certainly the fastest connection I've ever heard of short of laying down your own T1 line.

So, DSL and cable are good, reliable and cheap -- if they're offered where you live. But if not, don't waste your time with the slower, more expensive, can't-play-Quake connection DirectWay offers you. Go with wireless, and smoke the competition.

And no, I don't work for DLS. :-)


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