A Love Letter to the Cable Guy, or How Really Fast Broadband Changes Everything

You might think your existing broadband Internet connection is fast enough. It’s not. When it comes to Internet speeds, more is always better. That’s why we all owe some sincere gratitude to the intrepid men and women who bring truly high-speed Internet into our homes.

This post is a message of sincere appreciation - a love letter if you will - to the cable guy who recently upgraded the Internet connection in my San Francisco home. Whether you know it or not, you’ve made my life better in so many ways.

I’ve had broadband access at my home since DSL came to San Francisco in the 1990s. So I didn’t think getting faster service would make all that much of a difference in my life. Boy was I wrong.

My family and I just upgraded our cable Internet service from about 10 Mbps to 50 Mbps. And then we bought a new Wi-Fi router to extend that service to all our wireless devices. Now, 10Mbps isn’t that slow, and 50Mbps is far from the fastest service around (heck, ReadWriteWeb’s headquarters clocks in at an awesome 100Mbps). But I am still stunned at how much the change is affecting how we all use the Internet. And how much I want to hug the Astound cable guy who brought it to us.

Easy Upgrade

Compared to the early days of broadband, the process was amazingly simple. The Astound technician came out to our 115-year-old Victorian with a new Cisco DPC3010 cable modem (actually showing up in the first half hour of the promised 4-hour window!) The tech replaced our old unit and checked out the cabling in less than an hour. Bam, the speed of our hardwired connections instantly quintupled! No fuss, no muss.

Except that the increase was only visible on wired connection, not the fleet of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices where we do most of our work (and play). They got a bump to about 20Mbps. Faster, but suddenly pokey next to the wired connections.

Even though we had a relatively recent Belkin router using the modern 802.11n Wi-Fi specification, it simply couldn’t keep up. The tech - remember how much I love him? - recommended getting a new router that supported the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) 3.0 standard. And because we have a mix of Apple, Windows and other devices in the house, my spouse decided to choose simplicity over economy and we splurged for an Apple AirPort Extreme Wi-Fi router.

Although its $179 price is almost double that of competing devices with similar specs, it was by far the easiest router to install and configure that I’ve ever used. Everything was up and running within five minutes, with none of the false starts and geeky questions I’ve encountered setting up other wireless systems over the years. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but I can’t say I missed the headaches.

More importantly, though, suddenly every device in the house was testing out at 50Mbps downloads. 

Faster Everything

The conventional wisdom holds that just about any broadband connection is sufficient for browsing the Web, and that faster connections don’t really provide much benefit in this regard.

Thanks to our cable guy, I can confidently state that conventional wisdom is dead wrong.

Web browsing at 50Mbps is noticeably faster and less annoying than browsing at 10Mbps. In most cases, pages begin loading faster and images show up along with the text, not a second or two later. Downloading large files, from software applications to data sets to high-resolution images is now something we do in real time, rather than a process we start and let run in the background. 

If general browsing got a mild boost from the faster speeds, working with Software as a Service (SaaS) applications delivered over the Internet enjoyed a serious kick in the pants. Gmail and Google Docs suddenly seemed almost as fast as email or productivity software running on a local machine.

Better Streaming

Perhaps the biggest, most noticeable improvement came when consuming streaming content. At 50Mbps, YouTube and other online videos leap into action, instantly jumping ahead with plenty of buffer room. Nice to see on the desktop, but positively intoxicating on an iPad or other tablet, which now seems seamlessly connected to the entire Internet. (I murmur soft words of thanks to the cable guy every time I watch anything on a tablet.)

I now find that I want to have the iPad close at hand at all times, because it’s just so darn easy to watch anything online as soon as I can type it in. Just as important, I’m now wondering why I need a tablet with 64GB of storage space when I can grab stuff from the Net just as quickly. (That makes my new Google Nexus 7 tablet seem more inviting.)

Not surprisingly, that holds true when using streaming media services - whether on a computer, iPad or big-screen TV. Services such as Hulu or HBO Go perform almost as well as our satellite TV service - and our Apple TV box delivers a more TV-like experience than ever before. If it weren’t for live sports, I’d already be considering cutting the cord. (I worry that the cable guy wouldn't like that, though.)

Better Backups and Sharing

All of the members of my household rely on Dropbox to sync and share files, and some of us even pay for extra space. And one of us relies on Apple’s iCloud to sync huge chunks of data among many devices. But syncing all that data to new devices used to take hours, and it churned through much of our 100GB per month data cap. No more. At 50Mbps down and 6Mbps up, those syncs and backups happen much faster. Syncing and backing up to the cloud now seems like a much more reasonable option than it used to.

Upload speeds are often the Achilles' heel of cloud services, but 6Mbps is fast enough to help ease the bottleneck. Still, if the cable guy wants me to buy him chocolates, it would be nice to have upload speeds closer to the downloads.

Bigger Data Limits

When you add up all this stuff, it’s pretty clear that my family is likely to churn through a lot more bandwidth every month - and we were already incurring fees by exceeding our old plan’s limit of 100GB per month. The new plan ups our data transfer limit to 300GB per month, but with the extra speed encouraging all these new uses, we’re actually worried we may blow past that figure as well!

We made the switch because we cycle through a lot of data in our house, and it seemed to make sense. But I think we were all surprised at how much a five-times boost in speed changed the quality and quantity of our Internet usage. I’ve become an instant convert to the idea that the future of the Internet requires that everyone get not just broadband, but really fast broadband.

I hear that Verizon FiOS now offers up to 300Mbps. A week ago, I would have said that’s ridiculous. Now I’m wondering if those speeds will ever be available in San Francisco (if not from FiOS, which apparently won't be built out any more than it already has been, then from another provider). Sorry cable guy, I appreciate how much you’ve done for me, but if the phone company guy shows up with six times faster service, I’m going with him.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.