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Bandwidth Connections, Which is Best for You?

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May/June 2001 - Volumne 80, Number 3

by John Williams

Imagine running a business without electricity or phone service, without a fax or a copy machine. It would be virtually impossible. Broadband connectivity is the next basic business utility coming down the pike. In the not-too-distant future, companies without reliable, flexible broadband Internet access will not be able to effectively compete, no matter what the industry.

Today, broadband is making business better. Not everyone has it, so those companies that do have an advantage over those that don’t. Soon, however, broadband will be a universal standard that raises the playing field to another level. If you don’t have it, you won’t get in the game.

Basic Working Knowledge

The most common benefit of broadband connectivity is a fast Internet connection. The Internet however is not just for surfing the net. With more companies developing extranets, a fast Internet connection can be more important than ever. By connecting multiple locations together you can keep from reinventing the wheel. The ability to share your data and applications is obvious, however there are also benefits in communication between the offices via e-mail, fax, and voice. And if your offices are in different area codes, the benefits can be even greater since you might eliminate long distance charges.

Bring on the Bandwidth

Everyone wants a fast connection and the reasons are obvious. Broadband Internet service in many cases is "always-on," meaning you don’t have to dial in to your ISP’s server and wait for a connection (and potentially not get one during peak times). Just launch your browser and you’re connected.

But the real allure for many is the speed. While the maximum Kbps (kilobits per second) for dial-up Internet service is 53.3 Kbps, cable and DSL connections generally deliver an average minimum of around 150 Kbps (kilobits per second) and an average maximum of around 1 Mbps (megabit per second) for cable and 2 Mbps for DSL. The extra speed not only makes downloading Web page seemingly instant, but it also enables subscribers to use the Web for things that are impractical over a regular phone connection such as: streaming audio and video, virtual private networks (VPNs), extranets, and more. Broadband’s fat pipe also makes it practical for a small business or home user to share a single connection and ISP (Internet Service Provider) account among several PCs,a prospect that would bring a dial-up connection to its knees.

How Much Bandwidth

Do You Need?

A general rule of thumb is to get as much as you can afford, because you can never have too much. And, you’ll find that once you have a fast broadband connection you’ll soon discover that you can do more than you ever thought. Does this mean up should order a T3 line for an office with four people? Absolutely not. Hopefully with the information provided here, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about which broadband option best suits your needs.

The more users you have, the more bandwidth you’ll need. But, you also need to look at what the users are doing with the connection. Twenty users that just access e-mail could use as much bandwidth as five that only access a database. Are you going to connect multiple offices? What will you need to do between the offices, share applications and data? Do you need Internet access? This is where things can get a little complicated. Let’s say you have five offices. You won’t need five Internet connections,like you might with a traditional dial-up,you can share one connection through the WAN connections to all the offices. Will you have remote users and do these users need to access? Do you have or a need for a virtual private network?

Can We Get It?

While a majority of people would switch to broadband service tomorrow given the chance, the unhappy truth is that most U.S. homes and businesses don’t have that choice. What’s the holdup? Simply put, DSL and cable-modem service suppliers need time and money to upgrade the infrastructure as required by broadband.

The copper loops that connect most American households to local telephone central office switches were not designed for data traffic, particularly high-speed data traffic. But the electronics that enhance voice communication are murder on data transmission.

Cable service providers are also having a difficult time. The cable infrastructure was designed for one-way television programming communications,from the programmers to the consumer. Internet communications require two-way service.

For those not inclined to wait,and for those in rural areas that may never get wired broadband service,there are alternatives. What follows is a brief overview of the types of connections available. Keep in mind that all of these services may not be available in your location today but might be in the future.

DSL
Phone lines,not just for voice anymore.

Although ISDN has been delivering digital data services over standard phone lines for years, it is DSL (digital subscriber line) that gives your phone line superman-like power. DSL boasts faster connection times, higher throughput, easier installation, and cheaper subscription costs. DSL is a fairly simple technology, however it can be one of the most confusing. There are as many variations of DSL as there are types of coffees available at Starbucks:

DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is another method of high-speed data transfer over ordinary copper telephone lines. xDSL refers to different variations of DSL, such as ADSL, HDSL, SDSL, and RADSL.

ADSL (Asymmetric DSL) is the "asymmetric" form of DSL. It is called asymmetric since most of its two-way bandwidth is devoted to the downstream direction, sending data to the user.

HDSL (High bit-rate DSL) is a symmetrical DSL type, where an equal amount of bandwidth is available in both upstream and downstream directions. It runs over two twisted pairs.

SDSL (Single line DSL) is similar to HDSL, however it runs on a single twisted pair.

RADSL (Rate-Adaptive DSL) is an ADSL technology with software able to determine the rate at which signals can be transmitted on a given customer phone line, and adjust the delivery rate accordingly.

It’s often is not a mater of what type of service you what more what is available to you

Often, it’s not a matter of what type of service you want, but rather what is available to you.

When shopping for DSL service, it is advisable to first contact your local telephone provider to ask if DSL is available in your location. You may ask, why contact my local phone company when I’ve seen lower rates available from other providers? The answer is simple: no matter who you contract with for your DSL, your service will still run through your local phone provider. So contrary to what you may read in advertising, if your local phone company can’t provide service, chances that a third-party vendor won’t be able to either. Limited availability is the major down side of DSL.

There are a few hurdles that you must cross before you can choose DSL. First, if you are in a newer area that is wired with fiber optic cables, your are out of luck, since DSL only works on copper loop lines at this time. Second, you must be no further than 15,000 feet from the central office. Much further, and the quality of the line degrades to a point that it is not usable and most Telco’s will not install beyond this point. There are new technologies and switch upgrades that Telco’s are experimenting with everyday so if DSL is not available today, it could be soon.

Cable
A fast Internet connection.

Cable is probably the most widely known form of Broadband access. It’s fast, simple, widely available, and cheap. However, it is currently not available for business use in most areas. Because cable was originally intended as a consumer television service, it’s available in residential areas, but often not in downtown areas or commercial zones. With so many residential customers waiting for relatively simple installations, cable operators are reluctant to spend money running additional wires to office parks. This has forced many small and medium-size businesses to subscribe to DSL service, since all office buildings are wired for phone service. Of course, if an office already has cable jacks, the cable operator will probably be able to provide Internet service. However, businesses will have the same terms and conditions offered to residential users: they won’t be allowed to host high-traffic Web sites over their cable connections.

If cable is an available option for you, there are a few things you need to know. On the plus side, you’ll find a wide variety of manufacturers waiting to provide you with the hardware you need at very affordable prices. On the down side however, cable is probably the most dangerous type of connection. The nature of cable broadband has all users connected by, what in simple terms is, a big party line.

The shared nature of the cable service, in which each 27-Mbps connection serves multiple locations in a node, has also come under fire. The more people on a node, the slower each connection could be. Unfortunately, subscribers have no way of knowing how many people are on the node, so it’s impossible to know before subscribing what kind of service to expect. This may change as the new DOCSIS Version 1.1 modems roll out later this year.

While initial activity in cable modems is in the consumer market, business users are not being overlooked by cable companies. Many of these cable services are not the traditional, coaxial cable services but rather fiber-optic cables, which make up the backbone of the cable provider’s network. Providers typically connect businesses directly into the backbone of the network without the intermediate step of a cable modem.

Satellite
The only choice for remote locales?

For the vast majority of Internet users in the U.S., all the talk about high-speed cable and DSL connectivity is just that: talk. It will take the better part of a decade for such service to be available to a majority of U.S. homes and businesses, and many rural communities may never be wired for broadband.

Another alternative is Satellite Internet Service. The ranks of satellite broadband users are expected to increase over the next few years. And that’s despite the fact that satellite is hardly a perfect solution.

Satellite is probably the least understood and most complex service available. However, it is a fast and economical access when you only need a connection to the Internet, and a T1 line is your last option. Satellite provides throughput (data transmission) at speeds equal to cable or DSL without the headaches of dealing with your local Telco or cable company.

That being said, one might ask if satellite is as fast and cheap as the other technologies, why not use it? The biggest single reason is the unpredictability of the weather. If you live in an area that is prone to heavy rain, wind or snow, you could go without service until the weather clears. And, you must have a clear line of site for the antenna. Last, but not least, is the delay time. Your data will be well traveled as it covers over 45,000 miles round trip, which could mean delays on average of 0.7 seconds. If you require voice-over IP, video-conferencing or other types of multimedia applications, this may not be the best solution for you.

The best-known satellite Internet player is four-year-old Hughes Network Systems, which has approximately 200,000 subscribers for its DirecPC service. Hughes’ design is known as the "fast-download" model,when you access the Web, your data request is sent to Hughes’ Maryland network operations center over a phone line. Responses from Web sites return to your desktop via the satellite connection. Thus, you need both the 18-inch DirecPC dish and a traditional dial-up line. This approach delivers great streaming audio and video and allows fast (400-Kbps) file downloads. But, page requests are routed the old-fashioned way, so surfing Web sites doesn’t feel that much quicker than on a standard dial-up connection.

Wireless Local Loop
Airwave connectivity comes at a premium price.

Wireless local loop (WLL) is David’s slingshot in a world of Goliaths, to take on some of the biggest telecommunications companies,and much better known technologies like cable and DSL.

WLL is different from and simpler than mobile wireless, because it doesn’t utilize client devices moving in and out of coverage areas. If you haven’t heard of WLL, you’re not alone. Currently, there are fewer than 200,000 subscribers in the U.S. Like satellite, WLL (also known as fixed-point wireless) is offered primarily to businesses and homes in areas where the infrastructure is not in place to deliver broadband via DSL or cable.

WLL providers say they have an edge over the larger and often slower-moving broadband players, since they do not need to rely on third-party providers to complete the service. This is because deploying WLL is easier than rolling out cable or DSL service. Upgrading a geographic area to support wired broadband services requires a huge investment of money and labor for converting cable service to two-way transmission or, in the case of DSL, installing the proper central-office equipment.

WLL, by contrast, doesn’t require such extensive rebuilding. The service provider’s central office is connected to the Internet through a leased line. Data is converted to wireless signals and relayed to customers (using the unlicensed 2.4-GHz radio band) via a network of transceivers (called micro cells) mounted on utility poles, streetlights, and the like. A service provider can cover dozens of square miles this way, with an infrastructure investment that is relatively minor by broadband standards.

Each WLL subscriber has a small radio receiver (about the size of a paperback book) and directional antenna pointed toward the nearest micro cell, which can be as far as five miles away. The receiver has an Ethernet connection that plugs into a LAN or a single PC. People can connect as many devices to the LAN as they want, and they can plug in any of the popular firewalls and routers sold for cable or DSL modems.

WLL has advantages over satellite broadband because of its lower transmission delay. Price, however, is another matter. WLL costs considerably more per month than cable or DSL. A typical contract can run more than $100 a month for 1-Mbps service. On top of that, customers have to purchase the receiver and antenna, which can cost $1,500 or more, including the initial installation.

As WLL proliferates, equipment prices should fall. Thus, some of the largest potential competitors in the WLL space are introducing service in areas already covered by one of the wired broadband options.

Among U.S. business customers, WLL may not be the first choice for broadband connectivity because of the price premium. But, if your only other choice is no broadband at all, WLL may look much more attractive.

T1, ISDN
Once the fastest connections, don’t write them off just yet.

T1 technology and ISDN are old standbys that have remained high on the list of broadband options. Here’s the latest on these still-viable alternatives for businesses.

In a time when cable modem and satellite links often deliver 900 Kbps downstream, a 1.544-Mbps T1 Web connection isn’t as impressive as it once was. Consider however, that this bandwidth is for both uploading and downloading, and that one of the main advantages is that providers can guarantee 24-hour 7-day two-way service and live up to promises of minimum speed.

The costs of T1 vary wildly, depending on the location and the competition, but in any case, its reliability comes at a premium. In a city with many competitive local carriers, you might get T1 service for a few hundred dollars a month. In rural areas, a T1 subscription could cost a thousand dollars per month or more.

T1-class leased lines can be used to connect organizations to the Internet or create a private intranet. If you lease T1-class services between your business locations, you have total control and guaranteed privacy.

There are many twists on T1-class digital services. Those who require more or less bandwidth can lease multiples or fractions of a T1 line, depending on their needs. T2 provides 6.3 Mbps, and T3 goes to 44.7 Mbps. Fractional services offer lesser but still guaranteed bandwidth. Called burstable services, they guarantee a certain fraction of a T1 connection but can reach higher peaks. And many ISPs resell copper or fiber cable T1 connections provided by local carriers, marrying capacity with the content and other services ISPs provide. Note, however, that you can sometimes get a better rate negotiating the ISP and circuit from separate services.

Ordering and installing the connection is the trickiest part of any T1 relationship. The circuit contract typically does not include the router or other equipment needed to integrate the circuit with a local network. But if it does, you can rent the router from your ISP and pay the ISP to install and manage it. More convenient yes, but also more expensive.

ISDN

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) is a transmission method that predates both cable modems and DSL but has never fulfilled its promise as a universal digital connection utility. Still, ISDN may be the only high-bandwidth service available to people in some rural areas.

Basic-rate ISDN’s two 64-Kbps channels and software can be combined into one 128-Kbps path or left as two to allow voice and data streams simultaneously. ISDN can handle longer copper local loops than DSL, but it requires more complex programming at the central office.

Yet while ISDN is slow compared with other broadband services and has a reputation for being difficult to set up, it can get expensive. The two benefits of ISDN are unshared, constant throughput and the ability to do complex switching and handling of digital voice calls for PBX business telephone systems.

Broadband, What does the future hold?

Confused? Don’t feel bad. Broadband service can be one of the most confusing computer related things you’ll ever have to deal with. We’re stuck in the midst of a broadband evolution wrought with imperfections that taint the high-speed experience for many users, but don’t give up if you have a bad first experience. The good news is that today’s trials and tribulations will eventually get us to a true "always-on" future where ultra fast Internet connections will be as accessible and common as today’s telephone service.

The future may show a very different picture, however, when it comes to how and where we get broadband access. Cable and DSL, for example, may fall by the wayside as fiber-optic networks proliferate,something many industry watchers believe will happen within the next ten years.

Weigh your options carefully. It might be a bumpy ride, but well worth the aggravation. So boot up, strap in, and hold on,the days of taking a break while you wait for your connection are over.

John Williams is south east regional network analyst for Elliptus Technologies in Orlando, FL. He can be reached at: 407-481-8181 or jwilliams@landam.com. This presentation is excerpted from his presentation during ALTA®’s Tech Forum this past February in Orlando.



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