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Making the best broadband Internet connection

Back in the ancient days of the consumer Internet -- the mid-1990s -- a dial-up modem operating at 14.4 kilobits per second was hot stuff. It had little trouble delivering the text e-mails and primitive bulletin boards where the early online arguments about politics, religion, cats and other inflammatory topics raged.

But 14.4 would hardly cut it now that the Internet is chock-full of music and video, including live TV. Today’s broadband speeds for the home generally start at 768 kbps and go up to 50 mbps (that’s 50 million bits per second).

As a rule of thumb, the more speed, the more money you pay. For example, with Time Warner, 768 kbps service costs $24.95 a month. Boost that to 10 mbps, and you’ll pay more than double -- $54.95 a month.

But how much speed do you need? Maybe more than you think.

“You may think that all you are going to do is look at e-mail and simple websites, but once you start looking around, you might want to do things that are more data-intensive,” said Debbie Goldman, a research economist for the Communications Workers of America.

There’s a handy guide to determining speed needs in The State of Connectivity, a report issued by the California Broadband Task Force in January. It’s online at www.calink.ca.gov/pdf/CBTF_FINAL_Report.pdf.

The speed chart is on Page 12. It’s a bit on the technospeak side, but not too hard to parse.

To summarize, it says that for e-mail and basic Web surfing, speeds up to 1 mbps are fine. If you’re telecommuting, streaming music or downloading large e-mail attachments, you’ll probably want between 1 and 5 mbps.

Playing video games and watching good-quality video streams might call for faster connections.

Another point to keep in mind is that if several people in the household use the connection simultaneously, the speed is diminished.

“A single person downloading some files and maybe watching YouTube clips might be able to get away with 768 kbps,” said Doug Williams, an analyst with JupiterResearch. “But if there are three people in the house on the line at the same time, that would take about 3 mbps for the same experience.”

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