Optus @Home

Living with cable Internet service is quite different from having a dialup modem account, or even having full-time Internet access at work. It's a bit difficult to describe just how it's different, but it brings a subtle change to the whole online experience which is more than just the sum of high speed, unlimited downloads and continuous access. It's a bit like using the Web for the first time, all over again.

Having a continuous, high-bandwidth connection in your home means that whenever you turn on your computer, the Internet is there and waiting for you. It means no more dialup hassles, no dropped connections, no "get off the phone, I want to make a call" from your housemates. It means you can run all those cool applications that assume you're continuously connected - news and stock tickers, time clients, automatic software updaters. It also frees you from that nagging, count-the-minutes feeling you get when you're on a per-hour connection plan.

Enough philosophising for now. What is this thing, and how good is it?

Optus @Home is a collaboration between Optus and American cable Internet specialist @Home Networks. It currently delivers cable Internet services to homes in selected suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, although the coverage area will be extended in the very near future. To connect, you need to be in a street which has Optus cables, in an area which is covered by the Optus @Home service, and you must be in a free-standing house - they won't connect to apartments or town houses.

There are two basic service plans - the Warp Speed option, with a one-off $398 connection fee and monthly flat rate of $59.95, or the Lightning Fast scheme, with a $199 connection fee and a one-year contract at $69.95 per month. Both plans include a DOCSIS standard cable modem and installation of all necessary hardware and software. There are no download limits or charges and, of course, no time limits.

What do you get for the money? Besides a fast, unlimited and continuous connection to the Net, you also get five e-mail addresses (including 10MB of Web server space with each one), access to 24-hour telephone help, a bunch of local servers for newsgroups, mail and online games, as well as access to Optus @Home's own online content.

The speed of the connection is breathtaking if you've been used to a 56Kbps modem. A good 56Kbps (that's kilobits) connection can deliver up to 6KBps (that's kilobytes) on a download, though usually the rate will be less than this. In contrast, material such as game demos and news from the local servers can arrive over cable at up to 400KBps (kilobytes again -- who says computers are confusing?). Downloads from within Australia but outside Optus ranged from 20 to 200KBps, while overseas downloads were usually between 5 and 40KBps.

The speed is impressive compared to a modem, but that's not the whole story - you can use the high bandwidth to download more than one file or Web page at a time. I had no problem downloading large files in the background while simultaneously watching streaming video and sending in SETI@home results. If your computer's up to it, this is quite a different way to experience the Internet.

Optus @Home provides a range of its own content stored on local servers for blazing speed. There's a selection of news, including near-TV-quality video clips, as well as a low-ping server for popular online games. The newsgroup server is one of the best I've seen, locally caching months' worth of articles covering a huge range of subjects. Other locally stored odds and ends include movie trailers and online wizards to simplify tasks like buying airline tickets.

Over six weeks of almost daily use, I was always able to connect and did not experience any dropouts. A couple of times I had to reboot the computer to establish the initial connection, but this turned out to be a problem with my computer and not the network. During this period, the mail server went down for a day, and the news server was excessively slow on another day, but Internet access was not affected. Overall, reliability was excellent.

The conclusion? Fast, permanent Internet access is the wave of the future. You can take away my cable modem when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Optus @Home

Price: Approx $60 - $70 per month plus installationDistributor: OptusPhone: 1800 504 504URL: www.optushome.com.au

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