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Everything's Amazing

Columnist: Michael E. Duffy
September, 2015 Issue

Michael E. Duffy
All articles by columnist
Columnist's Blog

When I was a boy, we had 1,200 bits per second—and we liked it.

First, let’s set the tone: If you haven’t already seen it, check out this four-minute video from comedian Louis CK ( It’s a classic.
It’s September, and everyone is doing the back-to-school boogie in some form or another. Ours involves the Tacoma two-step. My youngest daughter, Andrea, moved into her first apartment there last month, and her mother and I helped. It’s a nice-enough apartment, probably built in the 1980s and freshly painted and carpeted. The thing that struck me, though, was the presence of a phone jack in every room. It was a little like seeing a dinosaur fossil in the middle of the wall.
At home, we still have a landline (with telephone service provided by Xfinity, not AT&T), but we’re rapidly becoming the exception. It’s estimated that more than 40 percent of U.S. households now have no landline. Before cell phones, you placed a phone call to a location. Nowadays, you place a phone call to a person. And “placing a call” is also on the decline. Voice minute usage is steadily dropping worldwide. I wrote a column several years ago which predicted what has now come to pass: Cellular plans are now sold by the amount of data you consume, not by the number of voice minutes you’ll use. Voice and text are essentially free.
Pro tip: Go to your cellular service provider and check what plans are currently available. You may save money. I just reviewed our AT&T wireless plan and lowered my monthly bill from $240 to $180. Plus, all four of us can now use our iPhones as Wi-Fi hotspots, saving me the $60 I’ve been paying Verizon for cellular connectivity for my laptop. The downside? We share 10 GB of data. We currently average 8.5 GB of data per month (guess who uses most of it?), and we get one month of rollover, so 10 GB seemed like a safe choice. Worst case, I’ll need to increase our limit to 15 GB per month, which will cost me another $30 per month.
Back to the move: It was a real pleasure not having to worry about dealing with the phone company. Still, we had to make the inevitable trip to IKEA, followed by an afternoon of furniture assembly. Finally, about 9 p.m., I was able to turn my attention to getting my daughter’s apartment connected to the Internet.
Cable is the way to go for Internet connectivity, unless you’re one of the rare people who can get Verizon’s fiber optic service (FIOS) at home. If you can’t get cable, then DSL, and if not DSL, then point-to-point microwave (also called wireless broadband). Satellite Internet service is always my last choice because of the latency (as Louis CK says, “it’s going to space!”). In Tacoma, the only cable Internet provider is Xfinity. Lots of people complain about Comcast/Xfinity, but it remains my first choice for Internet service. It’s what I use at home in Sebastopol, and it provides good-but-not-amazing speed at a reasonable price.
Andrea had already signed up for service online. Xfinity offered my daughter a 12-month introductory rate on their “Performance Internet” service level, which provides 50 megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $44.95 a month; 25 Mbps was only $39.95 a month. Both prices go up $10 to 15 after the first year (but then you call them up, tell them you want to cancel your service and negotiate). Neither Netflix nor Hulu say they need more than 5 Mbps for streaming HD video, so it’s all overkill to some extent.
One of the very nice things about Xfinity Internet service is that it also gives you access to their network of wireless hotspots at no additional charge. That network is pretty extensive (see a coverage map at In fact, even before we got her Internet connected, I was able to connect to a nearby Xfinity hotspot to check my email. The secret is that if you use an Xfinity-provided cable modem (which includes a wireless hotspot for your access), it defaults to providing a wireless hotspot that’s separate from your wireless network and bandwidth. It’s a clever way to create a national network of wireless hotspots almost instantly. Of course, you have the option to disable this feature, but Xfinity doesn’t encourage it (for obvious reasons).
Xfinity charges you $10 per month to rent a cable modem from them. Instead, we opted to purchase a Zoom Telephonics 5341 cable modem from Best Buy for $69.99 (the same price as on Amazon) and connect it to an Apple AirPort Extreme wireless router that we already had (courtesy of my oldest daughter). If we didn’t have the AirPort, we could have bought the same modem that Xfinity will rent you (an Arris SURFboard 6580) for $125 or so. If you rent your cable modem, you might want to consider doing something similar. The advantage is that Xfinity will replace your modem for free if it fails, but consider that you could buy a new modem every year for what they charge.
Setup was pretty easy, and Andrea insisted on doing it herself. Plug modem into wall, and computer into modem. Activate account via browser. Turn off modem. Unplug computer, plug in Airport. Turn on Airport. Turn on modem. Wait a couple of minutes. Presto: reported we had 58 Mbps downstream and 6 Mbps upstream bandwidth. As I said to my daughter, “When I was a boy, we had 1,200 bits per second—and we liked it.”
After 20 years, we’re finally connected to the Internet pretty much everywhere, thanks to our smartphones and ubiquitous wireless networking. We can watch a Louis CK video almost anywhere, including a chair in the sky. Everything truly is amazing right now.



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