There are several options for high-speed Internet access without going through a consumer-oriented ISP (or your apartment complex). Whether you're an end user or you're setting up an apartment complex of your own, you have a few options open to you:
This is what I was using in at my previous residence. You might be surprised how much it costs to get a commercial-grade ISDN connection, though. Instead of the typical $40-$80 per month for a single-user ISDN connection that is active only on demand, a multi-user ISDN hookup that's guaranteed to be online 24 hours a day typically costs at least $200 a month. I was sharing a $400/month ISDN connection with three other people, so it was affordable enough for four times the bandwidth of a 28.8-kbps modem link.
I know people who have T-1 lines at home, typically provided by their employers to facilitate telecommuting or remote network management. A T-1 line will cost you at least $700 a month, up to the $1,500/month rates that an ISP will pay for this class of service. It's really fast, but there are better deals coming along.
Modems work by converting data into analog signals that can be transmitted over phone lines. Phone lines have a few kilohertz of bandwidth, and sophisticated signalling schemes can send several bits per Hertz of bandwidth.
The speed of your phone line is like nothing compared to another analog channel that most homes already use every day-- cable TV. A modern cable-TV system, with about a hundred channels (and nothing on), has a hundred thousand times more bandwidth than a phone line. Even a single cable-TV channel can carry at least 30 megabits/s of data, more than a thousand times faster than a 28.8-kbps modem.
Companies like @Home have begun field trials of "cable modems", a new way to take advantage of this awesome capacity to provide fast Internet connections to private homes. It's not quite as great as @Home's publicity suggests, but it's still a really good deal compared to a modem dialup account. @Home says "The speed of the modem depends on the specific model, but generally varies between 10 Mbps and 30 Mbps downstream to the home, and between 768 Kbps and 10 Mbps upstream from the home." This isn't a completely accurate description, however. The bandwidth of a single channel is shared among some relatively large number of users (fewer in the trials, probably more in fully deployed systems). Statistical multiplexing helps here, but consider that while @Home may have 20x the peak bandwidth of the Toscana T-1, it's shared among hundreds if not thousands of users. The effective bandwidth will probably be lower. There are also security problems. On some systems, every user has the ability to eavesdrop on every other user. We'll have to wait and see how this technology develops, though. Most of these problems can be solved. In particular, by adding more channels and shrinking the geographic area within which a channel is shared, @Home can adjust available bandwidth pretty much at will.
Cable modems would be an attractive solution for Internet access in an apartment complex, however. It eliminates the need to run extra wires from the central wiring closet to each apartment, which isn't terrifically expensive but is certainly less convenient than just using the existing cable-TV wiring. Few apartment complexes have enough apartments to overload a 30-megabit shared connection. The equipment a both ends (in the equipment room and in each apartment) is currently more expensive than Ethernet, though.
Digital Subscriber Line technology boosts the data capacity of your existing phone lines from their current 56-kbps limit to perhaps as high as 8 megabits/s. Like cable modems, there are field trials of xDSL technology going on right now, but there are more cable-modem customers online at the moment. There are various flavors of DSL, hence the "x"-- Asymmetric, High-speed, and many more (see the schedule for DSLCon, an upcoming trade show for the DSL industry, to get an idea of the complexity of this market). Most recently a variant known as Universal DSL (UDSL) was endorsed by a large group of computer and telephone companies.
Personally, I think xDSL is a better answer than cable modems. Getting good performance from cable modems will require most cable-TV systems to upgrade their entire systems, and even then there's the problem of bandwidth sharing. Most phone lines can handle some flavor of xDSL, achieving performance somewhere between 384 kbps and 8 Mbps. This is more than enough for home Internet access today and for the next few years.
In fact, I've been trying to get my home Internet connection switched over to ADSL, giving up the current Toscana connection in favor of a slower, more expensive, but more functional ADSL service from Pacific Bell Internet and Concentric Network. It'd run me about $160/month for 384-kbps service in both directions. This is about a fourth of what I have now, but I can't really use Toscana's bandwidth the way I want to. The one caveat here, as with most DSL variants, is that it only works within a certain distance from the nearest central office (the phone company's switch, connected to the other end of those wires that leave your home). I've been in touch with Concentric twice, but they still haven't given me a firm answer as to whether or not I can actually use the service from here.
My favorite solution to the home Internet bandwidth problem-- and the only one that can really be called a solution at all-- is currently totally impractical. The Internet today uses the IP protocol (by definition; IP means Internet Protocol) to move data around. IP is really very limited. It has poor support for data transfers that must be accomplished in real time (like voice and video) or broadcasts to a large number of users. IP isn't very predictable, and it doesn't include a mechanism to guarantee that a user gets a specified amount of bandwidth or quality of service. There are various ongoing attempts to patch IP (RTP, RSVP, IP Multicast, etc.) but I think we'd be better off finding an alternative.
Fortunately, there's no need to invent an alternative. The Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) protocol provides all the features and performance we need to make the Internet a total replacement for our current data, voice, and video services. ATM is big and hairy and complicated. It's difficult to do right, it wastes about 12% of the bandwidth in the link (though some IP transfers are just as bad), and it takes years to get changes and extensions through the painfully bureaucratic ATM Forum standards organization.
So what? ATM's benefits vastly outweigh its faults, and I firmly believe there are many billions of dollars in profits just waiting for someone to invest the necessary billions to make ATM a viable alternative to IP on the Internet, for telephone and cable-TV service, and other applications that can benefit from ATM.
For home use, there's a 25-Mbps ATM standard that would fit the bill perfectly. That's fast enough to carry high-definition digital television plus all the voice and data service one home can use. This isn't something you can order yet-- there's at least a few years of work left before ATM can be deployed to end users-- but there have been field trials that have at least hinted at the potential of home ATM service.
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