Many of you emailed me about last week's column,
In Search of the Perfect Web Connection. Here's a follow-up to answer some of your comments and questions, and to explore a couple of technologies I left out last week.
Several people questioned why I included satellite Web connections under the heading of "reliable" for traders. "I'm actually surprised you even mention satellite in your article," wrote one reader, who identified himself as
. "It is downright terrible." I'm sure service levels vary with the system you go with. But overall, it can't be that bad. Otherwise, you wouldn't see as many dishes set atop office buildings. Still, trading -- particularly daytrading -- is a mission-critical application if ever there was one. If you don't have 100% up time, you stand to lose money. So let me say it again: Satellite's a viable choice only when no other connection option exists. If you trade from a recluse's cabin in Montana, chances are that cable modem or DSL service won't be coming to your neighborhood anytime soon. So you'll have to settle for satellite and accept the fact that heavy rain, snow or wind may cause signal problems from time to time.
When it comes to other technical problems, the
Tachyon.Net satellite system I mentioned last week allows customers to pay a premium for fast-response service. Rates vary across the company's dealer network. However, because this service is geared toward business, it's perhaps too expensive for the average trader.
Across the Chasm
Two new services scheduled to launch late this year promise to bring advanced satellite communications to the masses. Specifically, both will use roof-top dishes like Tachyon.Net's that let you transmit and receive information directly to and from the satellite. Pretty cool, huh? Microsoft-backed
Gilat-To-Home, soon to be renamed
, can receive data downstream at speeds of about 500 kilobits -- roughly 10 times faster than standard modems -- and transmit upstream at about 100k.
Hughes Network Systems
, the company that makes
DirecPC, which I also mentioned last week, is preparing a system that can handle upstream speeds of up to 256k and downstream bursts of 400k. Neither Gilat nor Hughes has settled on prices at this moment. But they're expected to be in line with broadband alternatives like cable and DSL. Expect to pay $40 or $50 per month, in other words.
DSL's All Right
I also received a number of emails questioning why I thought DSL was unreliable. "The flakiness of installation you mentioned is pretty much a thing of the past, except in cases where the distance from the central offices or line quality make it difficult," writes a reader,
. Well again, service varies from place to place. My chief gripe about DSL is the length of time you have to wait either to (1) get the service installed, or (2) get it repaired. A check of some stories and user comments on
ZDNet strongly echoed this complaint. Across the country, repair crews are reportedly stretched to the limit. That means you can be without service for a week or more should you experience a problem.
In the near future an entirely different breed of broadband service might -- I say might -- become the ideal port for traders. I'm talking about MMDS, which stands for multichannel, multipoint distribution service. MMDS technology has been around for years. You place a large microwave transmitting and receiving antenna in some high-up, central location and a cluster of smaller antennas around it. Originally, MMDS was seen as an alternative to wired cable. But customers didn't like the hassle of placing a dish on their roof. Besides, not everyone had a clear line of site to the central antenna. Nothing can be done about that. And, of course, weather can still cloud the signal. But over the years, the technology was upgraded and repackaged as a broadband alternative, particularly for business. Like the new breed of satellite services, the MMDS antenna in your home can both transmit and receive data, and at speeds up to 100 times faster than a dial-up modem connection.
Theoretically, that's enough bandwidth to enable you to flip between
, listen in on the live trading action from the futures or currency pits, conduct a videoconference with other traders and monitor your quotes. Long-distance phone giant
already has service in several southwestern cities and plans to serve 20 locations around the country by roughly year's end.
Pie in the Sky
Three years from now, the online world will be a very different place if
Teledesic lives up to its promises. The consortium, which has
as backers, plans a global satellite network that'll make broadband ubiquitous throughout the planet. In other words, any Internet device you use will have an always-on connection, wherever you take it. You'll be able to access your broker seamlessly from your laptop or desktop PC and you could receive a live video image of the floor of the
Chicago Mercantile Exchange
while lounging on a cruise ship in Alaska.
Of course, now-defunct
made similar promises for its voice-communications network. One problem: Many of the system's users lived in cities, where tall buildings made it difficult to port with a satellite. New advances may have licked that problem. When a user enters a city, the signal can be handed over to a local network -- just as cell-phone users get passed from one antenna to the next.
Perhaps it'll be a local network like the one being built by
Beachaccess.net in the Myrtle Beach, S.C., area this fall. I received several emails about this. The system promises speeds of up to two megabits, or roughly 40 times faster than a dial-up modem. Beachaccess.net's
technology operates very much like a cell-phone network. Wherever you go, the system will find the closest antenna and create a connection. Move out of range and you get handed over to a different cell -- which means you can watch your stocks in your office and keep an eye on them with your PDA if you have to rush to the bathroom.
Byte the Bullet
Bits are little things. So are bytes for that matter. But put enough of them together and the differences add up. Thus, a reader named
wrote me, "Just a technical note: You refer to connection speeds as kilobytes or megabytes per second (e.g., 56k). However, connection speeds are generally rated in bits, kilobits, megabits, etc. I only wish my modem would run at 56 kilobytes, instead of 56 kilobits. Then it would be eight times as fast."
Mark Ingebretsen is editor-at-large with
Online Investor magazine. He has written for a wide variety of business and financial publications. Currently he holds no positions in the stocks of companies mentioned in this column. While Ingebretsen cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback at