The only thing more agonizing than the wait for a Web page to finish loading in your browser window may be the wait for high-speed Internet access to arrive in your neighborhood. But many residents of the greater Washington area might as well get used to their 56-kbps modems--they're going to be connecting that way for a little while longer.
The problem is this: Both of the two main types of relatively inexpensive, fast access--cable modem and digital subscriber line--are ground-bound, can't easily be deployed everywhere at once and (in the case of DSL) only work over certain distances. As a result, fast connections can be exceedingly difficult to find, especially as you go farther from the region's urban center. By "far," we mean a few miles: Full cable-modem access has yet to reach Tysons Corner and Bethesda, and DSL access gets spotty even in parts of Northwest D.C. The maps on Page E11 illustrate this; they're based on data provided to us by the area's two residential DSL providers, Bell Atlantic and Covad Communications Corp., and eight cable-modem services: Cable TV Arlington, Cable TV Montgomery, Cablevision of Loudoun, Cox Communications, GS Communications, Comcast@Home, Jones@Home and Starpower.
This bandwidth deficit has been a nagging annoyance to many Internet users, since both cable modems and DSL offer considerable advantages over any current dial-up account. Downloads run from 12 to 50 times faster than on a 56-kbps modem, and the connection is always on--there's no wait for a login to complete or worry that your modem will hang up three-quarters of the way through some tedious download. And at $40 to $60 a month, they cost little more than the going rate for a dial-up account and a second, data-only phone line.
So what's the holdup? Cable-modem service requires the cable company to upgrade its network to increase its carrying capacity, then install the appropriate Internet routing and switching gear in neighborhood offices.
Because of these difficulties, many local cable providers have opted to offer "one-way" service, also called "phone-line return." With this setup, customers still have to use a modem and phone line for their outbound connection. Download speeds are still fast, but uploads go no faster than the 33.6 kbps speed limit that governs modem uploads. And one-way service isn't always on; you will have to wait to dial in each time you access the Internet.
In the case of DSL, phone companies must check wiring to see if it's clear to transmit the chunk of frequency used in the DSL connection. Then they have to equip "central offices"--neighborhood switching stations--with specialized gear. That central office can then offer service to customers within about three "wire miles"--not as-the-crow-flies miles.
But for now, the bigger holdup is simply the lack of DSL-equipped central offices. For instance, of the 91 central offices in the Washington local-calling area, Bell Atlantic has equipped 65. "Our expectations are for things to change very quickly," said Joan Rasmussen, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic. "We plan to equip all 91--and all but a handful within the next few months."Meanwhile, Covad has been putting its own gear into the central offices of Bell Atlantic and other local-phone companies; at the moment, it covers more central offices than Bell Atlantic. Several other firms, such as NorthPoint Communications, sell DSL connections primarily to businesses; GTE, the local-phone carrier in Prince William County, has begun a limited deployment of DSL there.
And bandwidth-starved customers face one last frustration: Not even knowing if they're eligible for broadband. The maps to the left suggest what areas are connected, but the only sure way of knowing is to contact a cable or DSL local provider:
* Bell Atlantic DSL: http://www.bell-atl.com/infospeed, 1-877-525-2375
* Covad DSL: http://www. covad.com, 1-888-462-6823
* Cable TV Arlington: http://www.ctva.com, 703-841-6310
* Cable TV Montgomery: http://www.ctvm.com, 301-309-5945
* Cablevision of Loudoun: http://www.cybercable.com, 703-430-8200
* Cox Communications (Fairfax County): http://www.cox.com/fairfax, 703-378-3456
* GS Communications (Frederick County): http://www.gscyclone.com, 301-662-6822
* Comcast@Home (Howard County): http://www.home.com, 800-850-5357
* Jones@Home (Alexandria, Reston, Prince William County): http://www.home.com, 888-405-9200
* Starpower (Washington): http://www.starpower.net, 1-888-463-7657