by: Jeremy Trogg

The term broadband is a relatively new term in the field of computers and even most savvy Internet users seem a little confused at its meaning.  Yet we hear it all the time.  Broadband providers, broadband access, etc.  But what is broadband?  Do you need it? Or do you even want it?  Some big questions with some pretty simple answers but those answers all depend on you and how you use your computer. 

What is broadband?

Simply put, broadband is a faster way for you to gain access to the Internet and the sites or pages that you want to see.  

Think of your dialup connection like a garden hose.  Only a certain amount of water can pass through it.  Broadband is then more like a fire-hose that can bring in the same thing, only much faster.

Every time that you go to a web page, there are files that must be sent to your computer such as the page itself, images, and other components that make up each page that you look at.  These files vary in size and generally, the more files that must be transported, the longer it takes for the page to load.  

A broadband line can send those files to your computer faster than a dial-up line can and therefore, you can see the entire page faster.

You have to connect to the Internet and this is always done through some kind of modem.  The connection is often referred to as "the pipe" because it carries data.  If you were to compare your phone line pipe to a garden hose, then a broadband connection is like a fire hose.  More data moves through it in a shorter time.

Broadband generally comes in three varieties:

Cable - Generally available in markets where you have cable television access.  It uses the same line that you receive television on.  It is easily the most available and can be ordered through many cable television providers.

DSL - Available only through your telephone company, DSL has some pretty severe limitations as to where it can be installed.  Unlike cable, the infrastructures are not well established and there are distance limitations.  While many metropolitan areas have DSL available, only a call to the DSL provider (your telephone company) will tell you if it is available at your address.

Wireless - This is a form of broadband that while available, it is hardly worth mentioning at this time.  It is often faster than either cable or DSL, but the costs are generally much higher, and it even fewer people are in a geographical location where wireless is available.

Broadband advantages

Broadband access is also referred to as an "always on" connection, meaning that your computer is in constant contact with the Internet.  You don't go through a dial-up or login process.  You simply open a browser window and there you are... on the Internet and ready to go to your favorite site.

Same thing with email.  You can just open or leave your email program open and your computer will regularly check to see if you have new email.

Because it is faster, you can go from web site to web site much faster than you can with a dial-up modem.  Pages load much quicker.  You can also access better quality multimedia (music, movies, etc.) because the files will transfer faster.  There are not the breaks or waits while your computer is still trying to access the file.

Downloads are much faster.  If you download programs, files, or email attachments, having a broadband connection may allow you to spend a few minutes instead of hours.

There are no automatic cutoffs.  Many dial-up providers will cut off your connection, even though you are downloading a file.  A broadband connection will not only download the file faster, but you can set it up to do so and go to the store or take a nap without risking your ISP shutting you down.

Broadband disadvantages

While faster, broadband connections are often times twice as costly as a dial-up connection and can cost you $40 a month or more.  Part of this may be offset however, if you have a separate line that is only used for Internet access.  With broadband, there are no extra line charges.

"Always on" connections offer greater speed, but they also pose increased risk to your system.  Because your computer is always connected to the Internet, it is possible (if not likely) that someone will try to access your computer.  This can largely be overcome through proper security, but still something that needs to be dealt with.

In order to access a broadband connection, you will also need a NIC (network interface card).  If you don't have one in your computer already, you will either have to install or have one installed for you.  These are available for $20 - $40 at any computer store plus labor costs if they install it.  The NIC is required to connect to the Internet and something that you will probably have to handle before the installer comes.

Do you need broadband?

The answer is generally no, you probably don't need it.  If you are work online and time is money, then perhaps you need it.  A more appropriate question would be whether you want it or not.  

If you spend a great deal of time at your computer, have the desire to download large programs, or often get frustrated with slow loading pages, you may want to consider increasing your speed by 50-100 times with broadband.

When you might actually have a need for it is if you want to do some things that are otherwise virtually impossible, like watch live broadcasts, watch videos, or play Internet games.  Trying to do these on any dial-up just doesn't cut it.

Note:  While a broadband connection increases your capable speed on the Internet, it doesn't guarantee it.  Your speed on the Internet is also governed by the speed of the computer where the site is located.  If the server computer on the other end is a slow computer or is over-burdened, a site may still be slow to load.  Most sites however, will load significantly faster.

Another issue that can come up from time to time with broadband (specifically cable) is how many other people are connected to it.  You won't have anyone else directly on your cable but your cable feeds into a hub along with everyone else.  Think of it like a hub on a wheel, or in technical terms, you are on a network.  You are sharing the pipe.

That hub can only carry a finite amount of data and if there are several people that are downloading massive files all the time, it can slow down the entire network.  Unfortunately, my experience is that few cable companies will do much about it unless everyone revolts.  DSL doesn't generally have the same problem.




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