What is broadband, and when will I need it?

from the June 2005 Newsletter

broadband imageThere's a lot of talk in the tech media at the moment about broadband. Telecom is coming under fire from all sorts of quarters, including the Commerce Commission, regarding a perceived reluctance to truly open up their network so that broadband can be extended to all homes in New Zealand at a fair price and speed, and in a competitive environment.

This article will introduce broadband. It will also deal with why it is desirable, what's available and how much it costs. It will mention techy stuff like kilobits and megabytes, but it will also attempt to render the effect of what those words mean in everyday language. Also, there are some changes in the wind for New Zealand broadband, so it will conclude by dealing briefly with those changes.

What is broadband?

In terms of Internet technology, the word "band" refers to the pipe or pathway over which content (the words, pictures and files that are the Internet) is delivered. Broadband, then, refers to any system whereby internet content is able to be delivered more quickly. A broader (bigger/wider) pipe means you can squeeze more words, images and files down it at once. The end result of course, is greater speed. Web pages load faster!

There is some debate about exactly how fast something has to be before you can call it broadband. There isn't a clear or correct answer on this one. A dialup modem can only deliver 56 kilobits of information per second. I don't want to get too technical, so let's just leave that as meaning "not very much." The slowest forms of broadband available generally offer 128 kilobits per second which is only about twice as fast as dial up. Some say that anything faster than dialup is broadband. Some say that you have to reach speeds of two megabits per second (about 37 times faster than dialup) before you can truly call it broadband, and that would just be a start.

How is broadband achieved?

By far the most common form of broadband in New Zealand (and around the world) is DSL. This stands for Digital Subscriber Line. You may also hear it referred to as ADSL, but the words don't really matter. Telecom market their DSL product as JetSTream, but that is only a brand name for it.

Whereas 56k modems use the same frequencies on your copper phoneline as talking (meaning you can't do both Internet and voice at the same time), DSL works by utilising higher frequencies on your copper phone line. You could be talking down the phone and your conversation would be carried back and forth on lower frequencies over the copper. At the same time your computer could be downloading Windows updates using the higher frequencies of the very same piece of copper. The beauty of this is twofold: Firstly, the copper is already connected to your house (not too much is needed in terms of installation), and secondly, the need for purchasing a second phone line is gone. This, in turn, helps off-set the extra cost of having a faster Internet connection.

Internet and Phone Image
You'll love being able to be online and on the phone at the same time!

Another advantage is that it is always on. Just like you get a dialtone as soon as you lift your phone receiver, you get the Internet as soon as you open your browser or e-mail program. You don't have to dial up and wait for your modem to go through all its usual rigmarole. Of course the main advantage of DSL is that it is faster. You will notice the difference mainly when you are surfing the web or downloading updates, programs or music files. How much faster this will be for you will depend on what plan you purchase, but I'll get to that when I talk about pricing below.

Other forms of broadband include cable, fibre optic, wireless and satellite. Cable Internet comes to you in the same was as cable television, down a co-axial cable that has to be connected to your house separately from any phone line. Fibre-optic is currently too expensive and limited in availability for domestic users (though this is changing). It comes to you via glass cables. Internet content is converted to beams of light which are bounced down the glass. If you break the band of white light up into streams of different colours, a whole lot of other avenues for sending data are created, so the speed potential of fibre is amazing. Wireless and satellite transmit data through the air (or space), so the speed constraints involved with more solid mediums such as copper are avoided, but the extra equipment needed can be cost-prohibitive. 

Do I need broadband?

I think a better question is probably "When will I need broadband?". In time, everyone will have broadband in one form or another and 56k modems will be a thing of the past, or will be used as a back-up only. It's a vicious circle. As more and more people get broadband, more and more stuff on the Internet becomes bigger in terms of download. Web designers feel justified in using heavier material. People want to send big images and other files via e-mail etc. Windows updates are now often so massive that they're hard to download at all without broadband. All this sort of thing (besides our natural human impatience) is pushing a need for faster connections (broadband). If you're just an irregular e-mail-only user, you probably don't need it yet, but if you do more, you will need it one day, if not right now.

You can get broadband with Actrix!

Click here for information about our JetStream Home plans.

People who have moved to broadband usually find they are able to make a lot better use of the web, and they waste a lot less time waiting for things to download. They'll still complain about speed from time to time, but put them back on a 56K modem and they'll find it hard to believe they ever put up with just that.

How do I get broadband?

If you're thinking about broadband, you're probably thinking about DSL, and you've come to the right place! Can Actrix do it? Yes, we can!

At the moment (but not for long) DSL is controlled pretty much by Telecom. As said above, Telecom has marketed its DSL product as JetStream, but that word is just a branding name like Hoover, or Commodore, or Just Juice. You've always been able to get DSL through ISPs like Actrix.  We would still provide you with things like the e-mail address, access to the Internet etc, but the stuff you download comes across Telecom's network. That's not really important for you to know except to understand why, when you change to DSL, you will start receiving two bills for it: the Telecom component on your phone bill (if you're with Telecom for your phone) and one from your ISP.

The Telecom charge starts at $29.95/month which allows you one Gigabyte of data which is a fair bit and would probably suit most domestic users. After you've used a Gigabyte of data that month, your speed automatically gets throttled back down to something only slightly faster than dialup. until your monthly billing cycle finishes and you get high speed again. All this happens automatically. On top of the Telecom charge on your phone bill, the ISP charges for its part of the service.

The Actrix charge is $20/month, or $9.95/month if you commit for 6 months or $9/month if you commit for a year. If you committed to DSL with Actrix for a year, your monthly total would be $38.95/month. If you deduct from this your current monthly Internet cost, and then consider that this frees up your phone while you're online while delivering much faster Internet, the whole package starts to look reasonably attractive.

This description above refers to the domestic JetStream Go plan. Its a 256kbps connection which is approximately five times faster than a dialup modem. You would certainly notice the difference!

There are a couple of one-off costs at the start. You will need a router. These are reasonably cheap. Actrix can supply a decent one for you (and send it out to you all pre-configured just for you) for about $160.00 and you can pay that off in three instalments if you like. You can get cheaper ones, but there's the usual risks involved with cheaper goods. Sometime you will need to pay a site visit charge (or installation cost) for a telecom technician to come around and set your phone line up for DSL.

If you'd like to know more about DSL via Actrix, please see our web page at: http://www.actrix.co.nz/domestic/highspeed/jetstreamhome.php. Give our help desk a call on 0800-228749 if you'd like to start the ball rolling. We can change you over and you can keep your current e-mail address.

How is DSL broadband in New Zealand changing?

The government has leant on Telecom to force it to open DSL up for other ISPs so that consumers can benefit from a more competitive environment. This is what is meant when you hear in the media about Telecom having to provide unbundled bitstream across its copper network. Telecom has already done this, but there is a fair bit of dissatisfaction about the extent to which they haven't gone, and it is expected that the deal for other ISPs will get a bit better soon, meaning they can truly compete, and the consumer can benefit from real competition. ISPs will be able to use their own networks more fully, and thus Telecom won't bill the customer anymore. Besides simplifying billing, it will allow ISPs to set their own prices. This will be a good thing for everyone and will be in place at Actrix within the next month or so. When it happens, you can expect improved value for money. What was a good deal at $38.95 per month, will get even better and you'll wonder why you didn't switch over sooner.