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Summary: Think you're going to have an easy time getting broadband access for OS/2? Think again, there are a number of financial and bureaucratic obstacles in your way.

If you aren't already concerned about how you're going to get high speed Internet access in OS/2, start. If you've already got high speed Internet access in OS/2, pay attention anyway because fat pipes are going to be even more desirable than fat clients or fat applications if they aren't available for OS/2. There's the possibility that you'll get locked out of bandwidth yet to come, or bandwidth that you'll already have.

And here's why: perhaps you've heard in the news already about the story of the Linux user who was denied DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) access by Bell South - his local telephone company. There was no technical barrier, just a profit one: Bell South wasn't interested in having him as a customer if he didn't have Windows. For OS/2 users the problems are double, since not only may there be a technical barrier, but OS/2 isn't on the hotlist of any high-bandwidth supplier either.

But before I go on I need to make a disclaimer: My day job is doing web design and tech support for an ISP and that means I'm biased, especially against cable modem service. That's part of the reason why this is being published as an opinion column. But it also means I know a little bit about what's going on, too.

I've also compiled a list of what kind of Internet connectivity is available now, what you can expect to work with OS/2 and how to get it. I've omitted methods that I'm not confidently familiar with, such as satellite downlinks and other wireless services.


Plain Old Telephone Service, the lowest 4khz on that pair of twisted copper wires snaking its way from the utility pole to your house, gets you a maximum of 56Kbps (X2, K56Flex, V.90) for downloading and 33.6Kbps for uploading, but those speeds aren't even guaranteed. The 56K part works because the ISP pays through the nose to have a digital connection with the phone company's central office, sometimes taking the form of a mini phone switch in the ISP's back room and a bunch of fiber optic cable. The ISP can then send 56K up to you, but with your 100% analog connection, you can't send back at that speed.

The advantages are that it's 100% OS/2 compatible and cheap at only $20 per month plus phone line costs. The disadvantage is that if you live in a crummy neighborhood with lousy phone lines, you're screwed. Try getting the phone company to "fix" your line noise problems. You'll call up customer service, tell them you're having problems with your line, hear the operator say "Well, I can hear you" and hang up. Or they'll send a technician out to laugh at you and charge for a service call. This kind of thing is particularly bad in places such as Long Island, where the mad rush for beachfront property and the exploding population has meant that the existing phone lines are overloaded and the phone companies are now playing games with compression and other gadgets.

POTS will remain an option for mobile users whos' bandwidth demands cover only e-mail and basic web browsing. The big national ISPs will get lots of those customers and justify keeping the POPs (Points Of Presence) open and accessible to the other poor suckers.


A friend of mine likes to point out that ISDN takes us out of the 1800s and plants us firmly into the 1960s. Invented way back along with T1 technology, ISDN was supposed to be a great new phone service for the home and small business. By putting a digital signal on the same copper wires instead of an analog signal, ISDN could be installed cheaply and carry three separate channels: Two "B" channels for voice and data, plus a "D" channel for signaling. You supplied the power for the line (meaning that if there was a power outage, your phone stopped working) and bought lots of expensive new hardware to make it work. Unfortunately it also required a lot of expensive upgrades at the phone company switches, so besides providing a great way for The Future Sound Of London to perform techno concerts remotely, ISDN didn't take off until the Internet age.

There are four potential speeds you can connect with and the phone company will guarantee all of them. If you're having a problem, the Telco is obligated to fix it at their cost. The two basic speeds are 56K and 64K per channel (up and down), so if you use both "B" channels at the same time then you get either 112K or 128K respectively. The reason why you'd want to use 56K per channel is to avoid the 1 cent per-minute per-channel charges that the phone companies make if you initiate a data connection. That charge isn't there if you initiate a voice connection instead, so most ISDN modems have a feature called "Data over Voice". A sneaky, but legal trick.

The additional costs with ISDN are steep, however. The phone company charges will probably be easy to live with, about $50 for installation and only $15 to $20 more per month than a regular phone line. The hardware costs will make you cringe, though. What you'll need is either an ISDN modem or an ISDN router. An ISDN modem (about $200 or so) will plug into your serial port, need an ISDN aware dialer, and possibly suffer from a UART bottleneck if you have hardware that can't support more than 112Kbps on the serial port. An ISDN router will solve both problems for a little extra money (about $300), but will need an OS/2 compatible Ethernet card to be installed on your computer.

It's probably best to get an ISDN router. It'll cost more, but will pay off in convenience and is 100% OS/2 compatible. What the router will do is all of the dialing, authentication and PPP management for you. Since the router is a tiny computer, you configure it by logging into it from an ordinary Telnet client. Better yet, you can probably get your ISP to configure the router for you, so what you get is a box that knows what number to call, what name and password to use, ready to plug and play. You don't even have to run a dialer program, since the router will do dial-on demand. Better yet, plug it into an Ethernet hub and you can get your whole LAN onto the Internet in a pinch. Need to plug in a voice phone? Most ISDN routers and modems will have two jacks that represent the two separate voice lines you get. They'll work with ordinary phones since the router/modem will be generating dial tones and ring tones itself as the signals come down the "D" channel.

Cable Modem

The first of the holy grails, the first of the "24/7" style connections to the home, the first one that will drive you up the wall if you have OS/2. Cable modem is wonderful if you have it, since for a ridiculously low monthly price (usually about $35 per month) and almost nonexistent startup costs you can get bandwidth on the order of a baby T1. Theoretically, cable modem can give you 30Mbps worth of downloading (about 20 T1s), but realistic figures start at 8mbps and go down to the 800K or so. Uploading is slower, never more than 1Mbps. The trouble is, cable modem is a party line: You share the bandwidth with everyone else on your circuit, which could be your street or a whole city block. If your neighborhood is full of cable modem subscribers, prepare to see your downloads suck at peak hours.

Yet it's still better than dial-up and ISDN under almost any circumstances, even when everyone on your block is downloading fixpacks. But cable modem may or may not be friendly to OS/2 depending on where you live. The story with cable modem is that the cable companies have set aside a couple of million dollars that they intend to lose while they take their time figuring out the ISP market. Cable modem users have reported seeing the modems frequently swapped, the programs that login to the system changed and all manner of other tweaking going on while the cable companies effectively use them as guinea pigs.

A physical cable modem is a lot like an ISDN router. It's an external device that plugs into an Ethernet card and supplies straight, OS/2 compatible TCP/IP. But unlike an ISDN router, the cable modem will not login for you, and this is where the woes for OS/2 users begin. You see, depending on where you live and the authentication protocol used by your cable provider, you may not be able to find an OS/2 login client that will work. And even if there's a "Roadrunner" login client for OS/2 that you think will work because you also have Time Warner cable in your area, think again. Roadrunner does not make use of the same authentication protocol in all areas.

But if you've got it, and it works under OS/2, don't switch until someone else offers you a considerably better deal.


This is the second of the holy grails, and the second 24/7 style connection. It's also what's called a leased line or a dedicated connection and doesn't suffer from the "party line" burdens that cable does. It's delivered over good old copper twisted pair, either operating above the 4Khz of POTS or converting POTS into a digital signal and decoding it back again on the subscriber's end. It costs big, however. More than cable modem, both for the monthlies and the initial costs. Fortunately it's as OS/2 friendly as ISDN is, since to use it you need a DSL router that plugs into an Ethernet card. There's no login either, since a dedicated line is a dedicated line is a dedicated line and authentication is not needed for a dedicated line. You just plug it in and it's on. That means no special software, just the TCP/IP stack that already comes with Warp Connect and up.

It's cheaper than a T1 for about the same speed, which will make it attractive for businesses. But the monthlies will probably be on the order of $60 for residential ADSL (Asynchronous DSL, faster downloads than uploads), going up to the hundreds of dollars for business class SDSL (Synchronous DSL, same speed both ways). The equipment will also set you back $300 or more, but may be available on a rental basis from the ISP that you order it from.

But there's a beast upon the shoulder of DSL and it's called "degradation of signal over distance". That means that the further you are from the telephone company's CO (Central Office, or the nearest switch to you) then the less speed you'll be able to get. If you're within two miles of a CO then rest easy. If you're further, you'll probably still be able to get DSL, but don't expect as many choices in speed.

The availability of DSL is iffy. Chances are you can get it now but don't know it yet, because none of the providers are doing a heavy job of advertising the fact. A small hometown ISP can start supplying DSL service by hooking up with a company such as Covad, who negotiate with the regional phone companies to do the installations but handle the traffic to and from the ISPs. Suddenly, this tiny ISP in upstate Nevada can offer DSL all over the continental United States for the same price (there's no "local POP" issues with DSL. You're either close enough to a phone company CO or you're not). But suddenly, this tiny ISP finds that its advertising budget doesn't cover the continental United States as well.

Bottlenecks, Throughput, And Dirty Little Secrets

A nastly little problem that faces both the providers of DSL and Cable modem is that while they're busy selling T1-like bandwidth for $40 to $60 per month, the actual T1s and T3s needed to supply those customers' demands cost about $2,000 to $30,000 and more per month.

Thats: A T1 or more worth of bandwidth to the customer for less than $60 per month.

And: $2,000 per month for a real T1 to the ISP to supply the customer demand with.*

So you have a cable modem or DSL and you're downloading at 10Mbps for $34.95 or $60 per month. You wonder: "If a T1 costs the ISP $2,000 per month and is only 1.5Mbps, how can the cable company or ISP afford to give me all this speed?"

They can't. That's the dirty little secret. So welcome to the world of overselling: where you sell more than you have to give because you count on those subscribers never using the full potential of their connection. That means you hope that once they are impressed with upgrades that download in five minutes and MP3s that download in 20 seconds, they'll go back to boring old low bandwidth web browsing and e-mail. When they do that you can safely sell 20 or 30 cable modem or DSL subscriptions for every T1 you have coming into your building. Once you start doing enough volume to warrant a T3 or higher, then the cost to support each subscriber's need begins to go down. But only by a little bit, not by enough.

Because you've still got a staff to pay and offices to lease and equipment to purchase and advertising to run and a whole other bunch of expenses. And since internet access is practically a commodity market, there's no room to expand your profit margins.

So that means costs have to be cut. Technical support is one very big cost, so you cut that department down by trimming the staff to people who only know Windows and can be trained cheaply to cope with the turnover.

And it means you have to start selling extras and premiums like on-demand movies that you must package in a secure format to cut down on piracy. And it means you'll have to start using caching to reduce the need for every client request to go out over your expensive T1s and T3s. And it means you need to find other ways to milk your subscribers for every last drop of profit, such as by selling advertising.

And in order to do that you need to make sure those customers are always coming to your web site by giving them a browser with an unchangable homepage, or a browser pre-configured to use your proxy server, or are able to run a program that plays your movies. And since you're looking to cut costs so badly you're only going to supply a Windows browser, or a Windows program. And you'll even require that your subscribers use those programs as a condition of service.

And that's why you heard about the Linux user who couldn't get a DSL line from Bell South. It's not that there were any technical barriers, because as I've shown, it doesn't matter if you have a Windows 98 PC or a Commodore Amiga when the DSL router is doing all the work. The reason for the denial is that if the ISP lets any weird piece of equipment connect to their network then they'll not only lose the chance to sell after-market services, but they'll also incur higher support costs.

There will remain an opening for OS/2 users, however, and it'll be called business class service. It will probably be delivered by DSL and will cost at least double what residential class DSL or cable modem costs. It'll make up for the profit that the ISP can't squeeze out of you and, in return, will at least give you something in exchange. It'll give you guaranteed throughput rates, a feature that cable modem couldn't offer under the threat of death. It'll also give you the peace of being left alone to run whatever crazy equipment or operating systems you like behind the router.

The Fiber Optic Middle Finger

For the same reason that the "Free" computers at your local computer megastore aren't an option for OS/2 users (you have to sign up with The Microsoft Network for three years to get one), tomorrow's cheap access may be Windows Only too. The good news for hold-outs is that it will only be a phase. Because at the moment, the demand for bandwidth is higher than what can be supplied, meaning that prices are going to be high. What gets offered on the cheap is going to be cheapened by attempts to make you buy other stuff, or to give you less than was advertised, or both.

It will change if the means of supplying those fat pipes gets cheaper and when the economies of scale grow to allow more tolerance for thinner profit margins. You might end up with fiber optic cables poked into every hole in your house. One day.

* - A T1 is 1.54Mbps. A T3 is 45Mbps and will cost you an average of $30,000 per month. But the price of a T-something is always a function of distance. The further you are from the CO, the more it costs. Because while a T1 is delivered over the same copper twisted pair that ordinary phone lines come on, a regenerator has to be installed every 6,000 feet to boost the signal (otherwise the accumilated noise would overwhelm it). You might have heard of an OC3 too, or an OC12 or an OCX or whatever. The OC stands for "Optical Carrier", meaning they're fiber optic lines, but are cheaper than T3s per Mbps of bandwidth since you don't need the repeaters to be so close. It's not unusual to see phone companies delivering a T1 over an OC3 - installing a multiplexer in your company's back room to convert the signal once it arrives there. You only pay for (and get the bandwidth of) the T1 of course, but it's as if you ordered cable TV service and the cable company chose to deliver it to you by installing a 50 foot satellite dish at the end of your street and running a wire to your house. For the telephone company, the extra cost is made up for in business.

(6-29-99) Corrections made to footnote figures and terminology, thanks to Jeff Blakley

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I'd especially like to hear from those who have been able to get high speed access methods to work in OS/2. Share your experiences in our interactive forum. And please don't ping-flood anyone you disagree with.

Copyright © 1999 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
June 1, 1999