How to Choose Your Line of Communication

You don't have to suffer slow telephone modem connections anymore. Which connection works best for you.

Most of today's home offices function not as islands in the middle of nowhere, but as island keys connected to each other and to the Internet mainland. They exchange binary information via wire or through the air.

Until recently, the primary conduit for digital data to and from a home office has been what even phone company people call "plain old telephone service," or POTS. POTS does a decent job of handling e-mail, faxes, and Web surfing. But if you need to send or download large data files, POTS can be maddeningly slow.

Strike Up the Bandwidth

Alternatives to POTS speed up the flow of digital information by increasing bandwidth, in much the same way that increasing the diameter of a pipe increases the flow of water through it. A standard computer modem, connected to a telephone line, transmits at a maximum speed of 56 kilobits per second (kbps). Broadband carriers have a bandwidth of at least 128 kbps, and some operate much faster than that.

Broadband systems not only greatly speed up the flow of information, but also stay online as long as your computer is running. This means you never need to dial a phone number for access, and can instantaneously receive e-mail and other transmissions. Telecommuters especially like broadband because it keeps them in constant touch with the home office.

Broadband services fall into three categories -- phone lines; cable TV lines; and wireless (usually satellite-based) services. Here's how they compare.

  • DSL phone lines. Connected to a standard computer modem, an existing phone line is limited to speeds of 56 kbps or less. Upgrade your phone service to a digital subscriber line (DSL) and you can expand your bandwidth to at least 128 kbps, or a lot more, depending on the service you buy. DSL uses a special modem, supplied and installed by the phone company, and doesn't interfere with voice calls over the same line. DSL service is widely available, but only at locations no more than two or three miles from the company's central switching office. If you live farther away, forget about DSL, although companies are working to expand the range.
  • Cable modems. The same coaxial cable that brings TV signals into your home can also serve as a two-way street for digital traffic. Again, you need a special modem, separate from the cable-TV converter box. Cable broadband systems can transmit much faster than DSLs, up to 10 megabits per second (mbps). One mbps equals 128 kbps. But cable systems are designed like an old party-line phone network, sharing bandwidth among other subscribers in your neighborhood. This means that the higher the number of neighbors online, the slower your Web access will be -- though info will still move much faster than with a dial-up POTS connection.
  • Wireless broadband. If your area has neither DSL nor cable service, wireless broadband might be your only way to go. Most wireless systems bounce transmissions off a TV satellite, though a few utilize cellular-phone towers. With a satellite system you can currently receive data at up to 400 kbps, but you must still subscribe to a conventional Internet service for two-way communication, which means you can only transmit at the 56 kbps limit for POTS. Satellite providers have announced plans for true two-way service in the near future.