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In high-speed race, cable beats DSL

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American households continue to sign up rapidly for broadband Internet connections, but the meaning of “high-speed” varies widely depending on whether a cable company or phone carrier is providing the service, according to a new research report.

THE NUMBER OF INTERNET users accessing the Web at home through a high-speed, or broadband, connection grew 9 percent in the six months between October 2002 and March 2003, according to a broadband usage study released by online research firm comScore Networks Tuesday. That significant bump in residential high-speed connections means 29 percent of all home Internet consumers are connecting via broadband, which tend to be 10 times faster than a dial-up connection.

After five years of availability, broadband Internet access ranks near the top as one of the most popular technologies among American consumers, topping 16.4 million users at the end of 2002, according to the Yankee Group.

The main reasons consumers sign on to broadband is for the always-on connection, for speedier page downloads and for using audio and video on the Web, according to the comScore report.

And when it comes to speed, cable modem connections are on average 50 percent faster than DSL phone lines, contrary to promotional claims by phone companies, the report said.

Cable modems are more prevalent, reaching 70 percent of the U.S. population compared to 45 percent for DSL, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association.

But just because a cable modem on average is faster doesn’t mean individual cable subscribers experience super-speedy service.

All broadband providers tout high maximum speeds, but there are numerous issues that affect a connection. Cable modems are subject to traffic jams, slowing down when a lot of people in a neighborhood are accessing the Internet at the same time.

“What we’re seeing is while cable modems are potentially more susceptible to slower speeds during the day, the average person is getting much faster service than on DSL,” said Russ Fradin, executive vice president at comScore. ComScore regularly tracks the buying and surfing habits of 1.5 million consumers when they go online.

For example, on average, a person who subscribes to Cablevision Systems connects at 708 kilobits per second (Kbps) compared to the DSL service from AT&T WorldNet which clocks in at 467 Kbps.

Connection speed will become increasingly important as the Web shifts to more audio, animation and video feeds, analysts say. In fact, the comScore analysis comes as major Internet news services have reported record-breaking spikes in the number of people watching streaming videos of statues being toppled in Baghdad and other breaking news stories.

Technology analyst Rob Enderle of Giga Information Systems says as more people switch to broadband the sluggish traffic situation will get worse before it gets better.

“The biggest problem now is phone companies and cable companies don’t have the money to build up the infrastructure,” said Enderle. “But as the economy improves and more of the networks get fully populated and profitable, then there will be money left over to build the infrastructure.”