Most of the 21st century has fallen short of expectations to date (Where's my rocket-propelled car? What about my household robot?), but I did manage to drag one part of my home out of the 20th century with two weeks to spare. After years of writing articles about fast Internet access, and whining about the limited availability of it, I got a broadband connection at home last month.
This slice of the 21st century, in the form of a DSL (digital subscriber line) account, costs me $60 a month. At $20 more than what I used to spend on a second phone line and a regular Internet account, it's money well spent. (Cable modems weren't an option; I didn't want to have my Internet provider dictated to me by the cable company, and I had recently canceled my cable-TV service out of frustration at its latest rate increase and my inability to watch enough TV to justify that cost.)
I started my broadband shopping by picking an Internet provider. My fairly arcane criteria (shell-account access, a reliable newsgroup server) led me to a couple of providers affiliated with Covad Communications Corp.; I picked the one with the cheaper setup and more favorable user recommendations on the DSLReports site (http://www.dslreports.com).
The actual installation went shockingly quickly: I placed my order the week of Thanksgiving, and by Dec. 17 everything was done. (It's possible my provider was trying to suck up to the press, although I've only used my home phone and home e-mail account to communicate with the folks there.) Most of the hard work took place on one Friday afternoon, when Covad's technician tackled the actual rewiring. After I picked which outlet to have blessed with DSL, Jeff the installer started by removing the phone switchplate to noodle around with the wiring behind it, then went downstairs to do the same in my building's master phone closet.
A few minutes later, Jeff returned, looking grim, and reported, "We've got a problem." I cursed inwardly and wondered what technical glitch had sandbagged my connection. He continued: "My truck's in a tow-away zone." I spent most of the next hour as a human shield in the front seat of his Chevy, napping and watching the sun set.
Back upstairs, with his wire work finished, he plugged a tester into the DSL outlet; we heard a cleaner version of modem static, punctuated by a staccato series of beeps. "That's it," he pronounced. He plugged in the Ethernet bridge--a book-size box that connects the computer to the DSL jack--verified the connection on his laptop and left me to my own devices. A quick trip to the nearest office-supply store and I had length of ugly gray "Cat 5" cable snaking along one wall, making my room look more like Dilbert's cubicle than usual. (I have yet to find anybody selling Ethernet cable in plain white; perhaps Crate and Barrel or Ikea will step in to meet this demand.)
With all the wiring set up, it was time to get this thing rolling. Having earlier set up my Mac with the required configuration data, I opened my e-mail program--and it worked! My recollections of what happened next are unclear; I may have jumped up and down to celebrate.
Yes, DSL is fast. Not blindingly so, at "only" 384 kilobits per second, but fast enough. While the Web as a whole is not stunningly accelerated, individual images bloom on the screen pleasingly quickly. And the first file download via DSL yielded a minor epiphany as I watched the download-speed indicator build up as usual to the 4-kilobytes-per-second speed limit of my old 33.6 kbps modem--then smoothly, effortlessly, swiftly powered up to 39k per second.
This kind of tractor beam is convenient. Large downloads are no longer an obstacle: "Oh, it's only a new Web browser." It's reinvigorated my MP3 listening, as I can now download a song in much less time than it takes to listen to it. And it's led me to rediscover streaming audio and video. Watching TV over the Net is still annoying, but listening to radio stations online is not. Unfortunately, most of the streaming audio out there is only available in a low-fi format, optimized for modem playback, so instead of AM radio with a lot of dropouts, I have rock-steady, static-free AM radio.
Still, the sound is good enough to make me want to hook up some better speakers to my computer. Once I add those, I'm likely to listen to the spineless programming of most commercial radio even less than I do now.
(With this easy access comes a greater risk of having one's computer hacked by outsiders. Security is a topic for another column entirely; for now, suffice it to say I'm glad I use a Mac at home, which--properly configured--is resistant to most intrusion.)
But the big improvement of DSL is not the speed, but simply having the Internet available full time, without fear of a dropped modem connection or timeout. It's like the phone or electricity: If I want to look up a phone number, get a map, send an e-mail or whatever, I simply walk over to the computer and do it. As a result, I'm now putting it in its sleep mode instead of shutting it off (if only its hard drive made less noise when it's awake). It's becoming more like an appliance that gets used throughout the day, not a specialized utensil only turned on for part of the day. That's no big deal; the computer industry has only been striving for this goal for the past 20 years.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Pegoraro, having recently survived the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, talks about the expanding universe of digital gadgets at 1 p.m. today. To join, visit www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.