Tech Break: Internet Guide 2010

Every year freshmen become sophomores, and the need exists to get internet access from somewhere other than campus. Below is a guide to some of the options available in Golden. Keep in mind that most of the services below have setup charges involved, though you may be able to lease equipment to turn part of that setup fee into a monthly fee.

1. Comcast
The nation’s largest cable provider aims to compete on service quality rather than price if at all possible, and Golden is no exception to this rule. Promotions may be available to temporarily reduce your internet bill by as much as $25 per month for six months, and discounts are available for customers who bundle internet and TV service. Otherwise, standard prices are high, including modem rental. Expect to pay about $60 per month for Comcast’s standard-tier internet service.
That said, the company is currently the fastest internet provider in town, with standard speeds of 12 megabits per second (Mbps) on downloads and 2 Mbps on uploads. Plus, their PowerBoost technology kicks in for web surfing and small downloads to increase speeds even more. Comcast’s top speed tier is a whopping 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up (and they actually deliver on that speed; I’ve tested it). However, the cost for such speed is high, around $120 per month including modem rental if you don’t get TV service. Comcast does offer a low-speed tier at $35 per month plus modem rental at $5 per month to rent, though you can buy a standard modem for about $35 if you know where to look. However, speeds on that tier are just 1.5 Mbps down and 384 kbps up; Qwest is generally a better buy at that point.

Comcast does have a 250GB monthly data transfer cap on residential accounts – you can look up their rather conservative usage meter on Comcast’s My Account site. However, the company only cuts off users who repeatedly transfer far more than that and are the leading sources of network congestion in a given area. Peer-to-peer file sharing, or newsgroup downloading, can be a cause for blowing past the cap, yet most users will be unaffected by both this and Comcast’s throttling policies, which temporarily deprioritize users on congested systems who have been downloading nonstop for fifteen minutes or more. Comcast also does not impose a transfer cap on their business-class service, which starts at $60 per month, albeit with a contract and hefty installation fee.

2. Qwest
Qwest recently – finally – started building Fiber to the Node ADSL2+ service in Golden, with a top speed of 12 Mbps on downloads, though whether you can get the service is hit-or-miss. I’m limited to 5 Mbps at my apartment due to the way Qwest has wired the area. Uploads are 896 kbps across the board, though on both downloads and uploads you have to factor in a 15% penalty on speeds due to the overhead involved on Qwest’s DSL network. This means that “12 Mbps” service is actually closer to 10 Mbps on downloads and 700 kbps on uploads, something to realize if you are comparing their service with Comcast’s, which tends to deliver speeds above what’s advertised rather than below. Qwest does have more efficient, higher-speed infrastructure online in some parts of Denver, kicking out upwards of 20 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up, however Golden is not one of the areas where this higher-speed connectivity is available.

Pricing, on the other hand, is very good with Qwest. The company is currently offering any tier (low or high speed) for $25-$30 per month for six months without having to buy a phone line along with the service. After the six months are up, the price for 12 Mbps internet goes up to $50 per month, with slower tiers costing less.

One thing to note is that Qwest is on the cusp of being merged with CenturyLink, a telephone company with roots in rural America and a penchant for pushing copper infrastructure a bit harder than the standard telephone company. This might mean higher speeds through the same old DSL lines (for example 25 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up). However, the company’s pricing is rather unimpressive in their current markets, and the transition to CenturyLink services likely won’t happen for another year or two.

3. US Cable
This provider serves areas where Comcast does not, assuming there’s cable in the ground at all. There isn’t much information available on the company’s website, however it appears as though their pricing varies from $25 to $55 depending on the internet speed requested. $43 per month gets 8 Mbps down/512 kbps up and $55 gets 12 Mbps down/1 Mbps up. The company used to have rather low data transfer caps on their internet service, but I was unable to confirm whether this is still true. Note that if you can get Comcast you can’t get US Cable, and vice versa.

4. Skybeam
Skybeam is a fixed wireless provider that claims to offer 5 Mbps on downloads and 2 Mbps on uploads for $40 per month, with a package about one-third of that speed for $10 less. From what I hear though, the company has had issues keeping their network functioning reliably, has poor customer service, charges additional money ($10 or $15 per month) to lease equipment, and cuts customer speeds in half for each gigabyte that they transfer on a given day. In some areas their service is workable, however I have heard no compelling reason to get their service over Qwest or Comcast’s, though Qwest sometimes has reliability issues of their own.

5. Mobile Broadband
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and CricKet all offer some measure of 3G connectivity in Golden, with Sprint adding WiMAX “4G” service in the near future and T-Mobile upgrading their network to similar or higher speeds via HSPA+ with a similar time frame. However, none of these services currently offers the speeds available with a wire-line connection, and all of the above providers will either charge hefty fees or throttle download and upload speeds after between 2.5 and 10 gigabytes over a month’s time.

Virgin Mobile, a prepaid provider owned by Sprint and running on their network, launched an unlimited prepaid mobile broadband service for $40 per month a few days ago, changing the above landscape significantly. Unfortunately, the company’s network, which diverges from Sprint before it hits the internet, is currently a victim of its own success, with low speeds during evening hours. As such, it’s probably a better idea to wait for Clear WiMAX to come to Golden, with a more robust network and higher speeds if you want to use wireless internet as your sole method of getting online.

As always, comments, questions, clarifications and discussions regarding this article are welcome, either via e-mail (ilittman@mines.edu) or via the comments section on the web version of this article. Next week, barring more interesting news, I’ll be discussing why iTunes downloads may not be going at full tilt on Comcast and Qwest internet connections, though everything else on those connections may be in top condition, and despite the fact that iTunes content practically flies over the wire on-campus.


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