Consumers can now log on and download the new ''Phantom Menace'' trailer faster than ever

April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

I can’t wait until cable modems are as common as microwaves. Maybe then I’ll feel less guilty about owning one. While my friends are still dog-paddling around the Web, I’m cruising along on a Jet Ski — and the water’s just fine. This must be how it felt to have a color TV in 1964. Hell, this must be how it felt to have a car in 1901.

Want to jump in the rapids too? You’re out of luck unless you’re among the 650,000 North American households currently served by a broadband service provider such as @Home Network or Road Runner (a unit of Time Warner, which also owns Entertainment Weekly). But more and more neighborhoods are being outfitted with the fiber-optic cables required to carry the extra load, and money is becoming less of an issue. The going rate for cable modem access is about $40 a month, not bad considering you’re saving the cost of a second phone line for a conventional dial-up connection.

Once Comcast@Home installed its service in my house — a process that required four technicians to run the cable to my study — I couldn’t resist the urge to take a step back and admire my new buddy. The box itself is an imposing slab of plastic and blinking lights. Best of all, data surge through the same wire as the one connected to the back of my TV set, so it’s always on, like water from a spigot. Of course, this means I’m digitally marooned when the cable goes out, and my Web surfing may slow down if too many users in my neighborhood are using their cable modems at the same time.

Still, even at its pokiest this is crazy fast. How fast? The MP3 of ”Free Girl Now,” Tom Petty’s free digi-single, took 45 seconds to free-fall onto my hard drive. I was able to download the Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace trailer — the 25MB menace that took more than five hours with my old modem — in less than five minutes. Ironically, this embarrassment of riches has changed the way I surf the Web. With my trusty 56K, I got into the habit of having several browser windows open, each loading different sites to minimize the wait. Now one window is all I need, since even the most complex Web page — say, the Java-happy MSNBC site — zaps onto my screen in a near-instantaneous flash of text and graphics.

Most disturbing, I think, is how a speedy Internet connection has lowered my standards. Since sites take only seconds to load, I find myself visiting them at a frivolous pace: I think I hit bottom when I checked out a URL that I read off a bottle of salad dressing. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve also visited (so I had a head cold).

The number of subscribers with cable modems is still tiny — only 331,000 people like me are @Home users nationwide. But as more and more folks see the thing in use — it’s no coincidence that my brother’s been visiting me a lot lately — broadband access will go from new-toy bauble to must-have gadget, and the Web itself will start beefing up in its wake. Sooner than you think, using a dial-up modem to visit a site may be as ”charming” as watching Titanic on a black-and-white RCA.

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