My path to the information superhighway is clogged with traffic.

As my computer-savvy friends have bought high-bandwidth connections and zipped into the fast lane, I've been trapped behind minivans and construction equipment, trudging along at 28.8 kilobytes per second. I know that's the speed most people are traveling, but I still can't help eyeing that broadband carpool lane with envy.

About a month ago, I figured it was time to step on the gas. I had just ordered a new bleeding-edge PC, and I was itching for the chance to take it out on the Net and open up the throttle.

But I've since learned that picking up speed on the Net isn't easy. In some cases mine, for example it's darned near impossible to set up a broadband connection, thanks to a series of mundane, real-world obstacles that really ought to have no place in cyberspace.

First, a little background. I live in a pleasant neighborhood in Tucson, Ariz., made up of nice, older homes with telephone lines that were carved by ancient gnomes from the trunks of ironwood trees. While these lines work just fine for telephone calls, they don't take kindly to any of that fancy computer-talkin' stuff.

I have a 56K modem, but I'm lucky to catch a connection faster than 21.6. When it hits 28.8, I gather up the family and offer a sacrifice to the Gods of Baud there'll be good surfing tonight!

Anyway, I hoped to upgrade to DSL, which stands for digital subscriber line. The service operates over standard telephone lines, and my local telephone company says it can move data hundreds of times faster than a 28.8 connection. The company's Web site highlights this feature with a graphic showing a wire literally ablaze with speed , which was, frankly, a little frightening. Would my homeowners' insurance cover a fire caused by a fast Net connection?

Limited reach

I soon learned I had nothing to fear. Although DSL is offered all over town, it isn't available in my particular neighborhood. Why? I had the poor judgment to move into a house located more than 15,000 feet from a telephone switching station. This places me in a sort of digital-era slum where DSL's limited extension cord can't reach. You'd think they'd have at least posted a sign: "Warning Digital Speed Bumps Ahead."

Oh well, I thought, I'll try a cable modem. The city's cable provider advertises speeds of up to 50 times faster than a standard modem, making it about 100 times faster than mine.

This time, though, I was thwarted by political geography. I live just outside city limits, and the cable company offering Net access operates only in the city. My own cable company is planning to offer that service someday. In the meantime, I'm told it has a lovely selection of pay-per-view movies.

I thought about satellite access, which uses one of those small rooftop dishes to download data at 400K per second. But the cost is relatively steep for a comparatively slow broadband connection, and it only receives data. That means I'd still need a traditional Internet account just to send data.

Luckily, I learned Tucson is one of only a few places where Sprint is offering a new brand of broadband service: fixed wireless. They strap an antenna on your roof and beam data back and forth between your house and a large central antenna. It costs $40 a month and moves data at speeds similar to DSL and cable modems.

I was sold. The company's Web site said my house is in an area where service is available, so I signed up and waited for the trucks to arrive. The day before my scheduled installation date, a man in a Sprint shirt knocked on my door and said he needed to climb onto my roof and check something.

When he came down, he had some bad news. My house couldn't receive the service, he said, because my neighbor's tree is too tall.

Yes, a tree. Three trees, really, planted in this absurd artificial mound that makes them even taller than they ought to be. It seems they block the view of the Tucson Mountains and, likewise, of Sprint's antenna from the top of my roof.

So unless Sprint adds another antenna or improves its technology, I'll have to get used to being stuck in the slow lane with most of the rest of the online world.

That is, until I can scrape the money together for a good chainsaw.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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