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Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro
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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 8, 2004; Page F01

It used to be easy to tell the difference between regular and high-speed Internet: The latter ran 10 times faster than the former, and it was the only kind worth bragging about.

Things have gotten a lot more complicated lately. Without knowing the companies behind each of these services, can you tell which is fastest by its name alone: High-Speed or HiSpeed? TeleSurfer or TopSpeed? MegaModem or SpeedBand?

(Answer: The first service in each pair.)

Two things are happening. One is that broadband service has gotten more diverse. Most cable and DSL service still starts at $40 -- Verizon's $35 service is one exception -- but a few firms now offer entry-level connections for much less. Cox and Millennium CableSpeed, for instance, sell cable-modem service at 128,000 bits per second, or Kbps, for just $24.95.

Many others have added plans with download speeds as fast as 3 million bits per second (Mbps), about 60 times that of dial-up.

Dial-up providers, meanwhile, are making their own attempt to bridge the gap between modem and broadband with "accelerated" dial-up. This involves compressing the text and images of Web pages, then placing copies of frequently visited sites on an Internet provider's own servers so that its customers can reach and download them faster. To use it, subscribers have to install special, usually Windows-only software on their PCs.

So instead of an Internet that runs in two gears -- slow and fast -- you now get a choice of speeds. How fast is enough these days?

The answer depends on two things: what you want to do online, and how often you want to log on.

The most common tasks, e-mail and Web browsing, can be perfectly satisfactory with dial-up, especially the accelerated kind. (Its compression may make images look fuzzier, but in practice it's not that annoying.)

Even lengthy downloads can be tolerable over dial-up, as long as you can leave the computer online to let the file trickle in.

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