Cable TV leads race to faster Internet

Your computer

February 16, 1997|By Michael J. Himowitz

IF YOU'RE tired of watching Web pages loaded with graphics, animations and other digital detritus crawl through the phone lines into your computer, help may soon be at hand -- if you're willing to pay more and put up with the hassles of cutting-edge technology.

Cable TV operators and phone companies are racing to set high speed networks for consumers and small business -- and it looks as though cable may get there first.

That's because the thick coaxial cables that already bring Roseanne and Rikki Lake to America's homes can also pump torrents of data into its computers. About 95 percent of the nation's households are within their reach, and about 60 percent of U.S. households already subscribe to cable TV.

But cable faces significant technical hurdles -- and cable companies have to live down a well-deserved reputation for poor reliability and customer service. They'll have to invest hundreds of millions to retrofit a one-way system for two-way communications, install high-speed fiber feeder lines and set up large-scale computer networks and technical support.

On their end, customers will have to install network interface cards in their computers and buy or rent special cable modems. Unfortunately, there's no standard for cable modems as there is for phone modems and ISDN terminal adapters. What works with one cable company's service won't necessarily work with another's, so if you buy one, you may be stuck if you move.

But the payoff could be big. Data transmission over cable is a two-speed affair, known in the trade as "asynchronous" communication. Theoretically, your computer can receive data over cable at up to 10 megabits per second. That's 75 times as fast as the phone company's best current alternative, an ISDN line, and 300 times as fast as modems using standard telephone service. Data can travel "upstream" over cable from your computer to the Internet at a much slower rate, a maximum of 768 kilobytes per second. But that's fine for Web surfing because we spend most of our time receiving Web pages.

Of course, this speed is strictly theoretical. Nobody expects actual throughput that fast, especially when subscribers jump onto the highway by the thousands. But even at 10 percent of its maximum, cable can pump enough bits and bytes to make Web surfing an entirely new experience.

Where will cable play? In the Baltimore area, Comcast is rolling out one of the nation's first large-scale Internet systems. It's part of theome Network, a consortium of cable giants and content providers who have developed a Web service loaded with 3D graphics, animation, digital video and sound that would choke on ordinary phone hookups.

As its new, high-speed fiber optic backbone spreads from neighborhood to neighborhood, Comcast is adding Internet subscribers in Baltimore County, and it plans to expand into neighboring Howard. It's offering a similar service in Sarasota, Fla., while other cable companies are opening shop on the Web in San Francisco, Fremont, Calif., and Orange County, Calif., and in Boston and Akron, Ohio.

The Baltimore-area service is $39.95 a month for existing cable customers and $59.95 for nonsubscribers, which includes rental of a cable modem, e-mail and unlimited access to the Internet. The initial hookup costs $175, including installation of a network card in your computer. That's far below setup and operating costs of ISDN, although the Integrated Services Digital Network has its own advantages. It can be used for voice as well as data and you can use it to exchange data with any Internet provider or office network equipped to handle ISDN.

The big question is whether other cable companies will follow pioneers such as Comcast. Only 10 to 15 percent of cable subscribers currently are served by the kind of infrastructure required to support theome operation. Moreover, some of the biggest players, including giant Tele-Communications Inc., are having second thoughts about jumping into the Internet access business. But if they do commit to the Internet, users may well have an affordable alternative to the phone system.

Naturally, the phone companies aren't sitting still. To crank speed up a couple of notches, they're developing something called an Asymetric Digital Subscriber Line, or ADSL for short. Originally developed as a method to deliver TV signals over phone lines, ADSL runs on the copper wires that serve most homes and businesses, which means it can carry voice and data.

But unlike existing ISDN service, the new technology splits off the data traffic and routes it through a separate data network. That takes the strain off a phone system designed to carry voice and provides higher throughput for Internet users and telecommuters. ADSL is also a two-speed system -- its much faster at sending data to your computer than receiving data from your machine. Current tests show a maximum speed of about 6 megabits per second for downloads and about 640 kilobits per second upstream.

As is the case with cable, users will have to install network cards in their PCs, and the phone company will provide a special modem for ADSL traffic at both ends. Just how all this will shake out and how much it will cost is anybody's guess because there are no large-scale ADSL systems operating yet. A few regional phone companies are starting to offer ADSL, and Bell Atlantic hopes to do its first trial later this year.

Some phone companies are tentatively pricing the service at $100 to $200 per month, depending on the speed of the connection. If that holds true, ADSL's customers most likely will be small businesses and serious telecommuters. One thing for sure -- ADSL will be cheapest wherever the local cable companies are competing with their own Internet access.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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