Information race nears a finish 'Convergence': TV, cable, telephone lines, satellites are all thundering toward the finish line in the race to provide consumers with something they may not want: a new source of information and entertainment.

Sun Journal

January 16, 1996|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,SUN STAFF

The football fans at the Super Bowl this month will find an unusual giveaway tucked under their seat cushions.

Instead of a coupon for beer or for shaving cream, there will be a CD-ROM containing a copy of Microsoft's Internet Explorer -- software for logging onto the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Some fans will have already played a fantasy version of that day's football game on their computer screens against on-line opponents.

A handful may have placed bets via the Internet with an offshore bookie.

These are parts of the new world of "convergence," the blending of television, computers and telephone communications that may bring about still more change in how people work and entertain themselves.

It hasn't happened yet on a large scale; convergence describes a medium still being defined. But it has attracted the interest, and investments, of major corporations.

To understand the nature of this shift, consider how most Americans receive information -- through newspapers delivered to their door, by voice over the phone, by TV through rooftop antennas or cable systems, by computer over standard phone lines.

Little changed for 40 years

But with the exception of computer communications, a phenomenon of the past decade, the basic menu has remained little changed for 40 years.

Now, cable companies want to provide phone service and Internet hookups. Phone companies want to provide Internet service and video on demand. Newspapers are starting on-line computer services. A half-dozen giants are bidding for the right to launch satellites that can pump streams of data directly into homes.

Hardware companies are building devices that can turn TV sets into interactive entertainment and shopping centers. They're also building gadgets that can turn PCs into hybrid TV receivers and videophones.

There are business deals linking cable companies with entertainment providers, phone companies with movie studios, software publishers with hardware makers.

No one knows what combination of technology and content will succeed.

Nor does anyone know whether consumers really want the avalanche of information and entertainment headed their way.

And nowhere has the clash between the promises and the limi- tations of technology been clearer than with the system that is the touchstone for "convergence," the Internet.

The Net began its life in the 1980s as a system designed to let academics, scientists and government contractors share information and computing horsepower. It was virtually ignored by the public.

In the early 1990s, its popularity exploded with the creation of the World Wide Web, a do-it-yourself publishing system.

The Web allows almost anyone on the Internet to produce on-line documents that combine text, graphics, audio and video clips.

In 1993, there were about 600 Web sites; there now are tens of thousands, and depending on who's doing the estimating, between 8 million and 24 million users.

But while the Internet can move data among its host computers at great speed, only those connected with high-speed phone lines that cost as much as $2,000 a month can take full advantage of it. Most newcomers are connected by modems using standard telephone lines that move data at a relative crawl.

Obvious limitations

Anyone who has tried to access a Web page full of fancy graphics or download an audio or video clip can attest to the limitations.

When Pope John Paul II visited the United States in October, the Roman Catholic Church created a state-of-the-art Web site, complete with live, real-time TV coverage of his appearances.

The slow, fuzzy video and choppy sound were enough to try even the most patient. But the fact that Internet broadcasting could be done at all seemed a great accomplishment.

So phone companies, cable outlets, satellite launchers and everyone else with a stake in the Internet are racing to provide a better data pipeline.

Phone companies have the early advantage because they already offer reliable, near-universal communications service.

As they replace copper wire with high-speed fiber optic cable, they are also marketing a service called ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network).

This is a 10-year-old technology that can theoretically move data and voice over existing phone lines up to five times as fast as today's speediest modems. That's still slow compared to what the Internet is capable of, but fast enough to transmit graphics and even crude video at acceptable speeds.

By phone company estimates, 80 percent of the homes in the nation's metropolitan areas could have access to ISDN. But until now, most ISDN customers have been businesses.

Will consumers want it?

The question is whether the phone companies can successfully market ISDN to consumers, who face the trauma of dealing with a different kind of modem, a series of setup charges, higher monthly fees and a lot more technical finagling.

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