by January 3, 2001 0 comments

One
of the several options for broadband access to the Internet is through cable.
There is much optimism with regard to this method, since a large number of
Indian households already have cable connections running to their televisions.
Even though the initial setup fee can be high in some cases, cable access seems
to be one of the cheapest solutions for high-speed Internet access in the long
term. Add to this the willingness of several ISPs to offer large discounts on
cable equipment to gain market share, and you end up with a very attractive
option.

So, in true PCQ Labs tradition, we decided to test one of these services. Our
test subject (myself) is based in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, and has had a 64 kbps
connection from Mantra Online for two months. Now, we realize that 64 kbps and
broadband don’t exactly go hand in hand, but it is also important to realize,
that being the cheapest option, this is the most common choice. Subscribing to
the service is as easy as paying your local cablewallah a visit and filling up a
form. A technician from Mantra or your cable operator comes down and installs
the appropriate hardware (modem, Ethernet card) and configures the machine. The
installation fees is Rs 2,250, and the per month charge Rs 1,100. Since the
cable modem is rented and not sold, we saved on its cost of about Rs 15,000.

My installation took two days, but the connection could not be activated due
to problems in signal strength. I was initially told it was too weak, since I
live quite far from my cable operator. Even the cablewallah was quite surprised
to notice that the modem didn’t go online even after all the amplifiers in the
route had been put on full power. Later, I was sheepishly told that the strength
had actually become too strong for the modem, and the problem was resolved
within an hour.


We used DU Meter to check out the download speeds with
cable modem. The download speed is consistent as can be seen in the red
graph

The advantages of a cable connection are many: no more phone bills, 24×7
connectivity and a bit more bandwidth than the average user is used to, to begin
with. Things you can’t imagine on a dial-up can be done through a cable
connection. For example, right now I am downloading Red Hat 7 all by myself,
something which one wouldn’t even dream of on a dial-up. Since the computer
can stay online 24 hours in a day, such downloads aren’t a problem. Then, of
course, you can afford certain luxuries like streaming music as well. All in
all, a good deal.

Downloads are quite stable and I seldom experience the roller coaster ride
that I had got used to on a dial-up. But there are exceptions as mentioned
below. My Net downloads in two months have already exceeded what I had managed
in two years of dial-up. I could go on and on about my download achievements,
but I’ll refrain.

Don’t be mistaken, however, into thinking that there are no flaws in this
technology. The most common complaint is of shared bandwidth. The reason why
Mantra can afford to give away free modems is because one modem can be shared by
many people. When a neighbor of mine decided to get a cable connection as well,
a hub was installed in my room, connected to the modem, and both of us were made
to connect to the hub.

What that effectively means is that now both us are sharing the same
connection, and as a result, the same bandwidth. I was initially told that
bandwidth is incremented on the modem automatically as new people join in, but
later curtly informed that this would happen only after a third user joins our
little party.

On a slightly more technical level, there is the problem of IP addresses. On
a dial-up connection, users are dynamically assigned an IP every time they
connect, which is revoked when they disconnect. However, in a situation such as
mine, the norm is to assign a static IP to every computer on the network that
never changes. However, citing security issues, Mantra decided to implement NAT
(Network Address Translation). According to this setup, even though every
computer on the network is assigned an internal IP that identifies it on the
local network, all connections to the Internet are made through a single IP.
Complex as it may sound, it is an effective and simple way of avoiding the
assignment of external IP addresses to all computers. However, NAT limits the
functionality of several software and, in my case, this means that I cannot use
Napster with some computers, use some IP telephony packages, play multiplayer
games, etc.

Finally, there is the issue of disconnects. Cable modems go online
automatically. But they also go offline automatically when there is a problem at
the backend. And in such situations there is nothing you can do, except sit,
twiddle your thumbs, and hope that the problem will sort itself out. However,
since the technology is still in its infancy and people are getting used to it,
one can expect such problems to reduce, if not go away altogether.

So the question is: Is Internet access through cable modem worth it? In our
opinion, definitely. For most moderate to heavy Net users, savings on the phone
bill alone will make up easily for the cost of subscription to the service. Top
it off with always-on connectivity and no download limits, and we have a winner
on our hands. Our suggestion is, if the service is available in your area, go
for it.

Anuj Jain

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