A decade ago, Canadians were lucky to have access to any Internet connection. Even dial-up was a wonder.
Then came high-speed broadband, through phone lines or cable connections.
Now, the sky's the limit, with satellite and wireless access joining the fray and speeds increasing regularly.
But just because you can get it, doesn't mean you need it. So which access is best for you? The answer isn't always clear cut.
The broadband options for most Canadians in fair-sized communities are telephone companies' digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable-television carriers' cable modem services. In many larger centres you can choose either, though there are still pockets even in fairly large cities where one or the other is unavailable.
Both work over wires that already come into most homes and offices.
DSL uses ordinary telephone lines but, unlike dial-up access, it does not tie up the phone.
It's also faster than dial-up service: DSL "lite" or "starter" services typically transfer data from the Internet at 256 kilobits per second (versus dial-up's top speed of 56 kilobits) and full-fledged DSL delivers your data at three or four megabits a second.
DSL only works over distances up to around five kilometres so if you are too far from your telephone company's central office, you may not be able to get it. And in some areas, older phone network equipment prevents DSL service. A cable modem connects you to the Internet over the cable carrying your television signal. It doesn't interfere with the television signal. Speeds are as high as five megabits per second; some providers also offer a slower, cheaper "lite" service.
Though cable modems deliver more raw speed, phone companies argue that cable subscribers share the capacity of the cable with their neighbours, while DSL is "not only fast but it's consistently fast," says Kelvin Shepherd, chief technology officer at Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. in Winnipeg.
Cable companies disagree. "They have a shared network as well," says Mike Lee, vice-president of strategy and development at Rogers Communications Inc. "It's just shared at a different point." Mr. Lee means that while DSL subscribers have their own lines direct to the phone company's local office, they share capacity beyond that.
The price is about the same -- $40 to $45 a month for standard service, $25 to $30 for "lite" services and $60 to $90 for business services. Many providers offer discounts to new subscribers, but these last a few months at most. It's also worth looking at features such as antivirus and spam protection, firewalls, the number of e-mail addresses and the amount of storage for e-mail, and so forth. Since the services are so similar, these items may make the difference.
DSL is popular with small businesses, says Tracie Wagman, director of Bell Canada's business Internet services, small and medium business unit. Fewer businesses use cable, because the connections aren't as widely available in office buildings.
Rick Broadhead, a Toronto-based technology analyst and author who has written extensively about the Internet, says there's no clear answer to whether cable or DSL delivers better performance.
"I think it has a lot to do with where you are," he says, adding that speeds vary with the individual provider and their network in your area.
If you don't live within range of cable or DSL service you can get broadband, but it's pricier.
Though many people think of satellite connections as mainly applicable to the far North, Leslie Klein, president and chief executive of Ottawa-based satellite service provider C-Com Satellite Systems Inc., says there are places even in urban areas where cable and DSL aren't available.
Satellite access works virtually anywhere, and it will soon be more affordable. Telesat Canada's launch of the Anik F2 satellite in July has made more capacity available and Coquitlam, B.C.-based Infosat Communications Inc. -- a joint venture of Telesat and Bell Canada parent BCE Inc. -- will launch a new service late this year.
John Robertson, Infosat's president and chief executive, says the service will debut at $59 a month plus equipment rental of around $12 monthly (with the option of buying the gear for $500 to $600 instead), offering 1.5-megabit-per-second downloading.
"The economics of satellite is such that you'll probably never see it compete with DSL and cable," Mr. Klein says.
But if you can't get DSL or cable, consider satellite.
The newest option, still not widely available, is fixed wireless.
Inukshuk Internet, a subsidiary of Montreal-based Microcell Telecommunications Inc., has launched commercial services in partnership with other firms in Yellowknife, Iqaluit, Richmond, B.C., and Cumberland, Ont., as well as a trial with AOL Canada Inc. in Toronto.
Download speeds range from two to four megabits per second, says Dean Proctor, vice-president of Inukshuk, and prices from $40 to $60 monthly.
As well, Toronto-based WaveRider Communications Inc. provides fixed wireless to Internet service providers across Canada.
Charles Brown, executive vice-president of WaveRider, admits most installations today are where cable and DSL aren't available but maintains wireless can compete with those services.
Mr. Proctor says wireless is simple to install and you can take your connection anywhere the service is available.
For most people, no one technology is the clear winner. The choice depends on where you are and the specific services available.