Hype vs. reality on high-speed access to Internet PCs with technology likely soon, but who will provide service?

Your computer

January 25, 1998|By MICHAEL HIMOWITZ

IS HIGH-SPEED Internet access just around the corner?

It looked that way when word went out that Microsoft, Intel, Compaq and six regional phone companies had agreed to standards that will enable computer users to access the Web over normal phone lines up to 30 times faster than they can today.

The computer industry heavyweights are promising PCs equipped for high-speed access in time for the 1998 Christmas shopping season. But as usual, the hype is way out in front of reality. While it may be possible to find a computer equipped with the new technology 10 months from now, you may have to wait for the millennium to find phone companies and Internet providers who can deliver the service to you.

Meanwhile, cable TV operators will be scrambling to extend their high-speed Internet service to head off the Bells. Although only 10 percent of the country is wired for Internet cable so far, and there are only 100,000 subscribers (including me), the technology works beautifully. It's unlikely that people who do have cable will give it up to get the same service from Ma Bell.

So what is the new technology that promises magic over the phone? It's called DSL, for Digital Subscriber Line, and it has been around for a while. The phone companies developed it when they thought they could make money by delivering video on demand. But it turned out that their customers were just as happy to watch HBO or visit Blockbuster. Since the Bells were already making money with high-speed business lines that used different technology, DSL remained a curiosity until the Internet explosion revived interest.

As things stand, DSL comes in a variety of flavors (this one is actually called ADSL), but they're all based on the fact that voice traffic uses only a fraction of the capacity of standard copper phone lines. DSL technology captures this unused bandwidth and uses it to transmit data.

DSL service can move information at a maximum speed of 8 million bits per second (It takes about 60,000 bits to transmit this column). By way of comparison, the fastest standard modems can receive 56,000 bits per second, and most operate at half that speed.

ISDN service, the only alternative that uses regular phone lines, can move data at 128,000 bits per second. You can do the math. DSL is fast.

To use current versions of DSL (if they were available), your computer would need a network card connected to a special DSL modem. With most versions, the phone company would also have to install a "splitter" in your home to separate the voice portion of the line from the data. Similar modems and new switching equipment would have to be installed at the central office that serves your home. Of course, none of this is working now, except in a few scattered field trials.

Normally, it takes years to work the bugs out of new technologies and get competing companies to agree on standards for hardware and software. But the computer industry giants -- who smell big profits in a hot new generation of DSL-equipped computers -- are trying to leapfrog history by getting everyone to make peace before war can break out.

Since phone companies don't want to send expensive crews to every house to install a splitter, the parties have agreed on a new version of the technology dubbed "ADSL Lite." It's capable of transmitting only 1.5 megabits of data per second -- similar to the low-end speed of cable service. But it doesn't require a splitter -- all you have to do is plug an ADSL modem into a regular phone jack. By the way, the "A" in ADSL stands for "asynchronous," which means that data will move much faster to your home than it will in the other direction. But this won't bother Web surfers, who spend most of their time on the receiving end anyway.

With everybody agreeing on the complex standards for hardware and software on both ends, computer makers and phone company suppliers will theoretically be able to turn out new DSL equipment quickly.

Now for the reality check. When you talk about modifying the phone system, "quickly" is a relative term. It will still take a couple of years for phone companies to install the equipment they need. In fact, no phone company has even tried a field test of ADSL Lite.

Even when it's ready for prime time, ADSL service will be limited to homes that are less than 3.4 miles from a central office. Many customers in expanding suburbs won't qualify. Some closer-in neighborhoods may also have problems if the phone company that wired them used a money-saving technology that carries several customers on a single circuit.

Finally, who's going to pay for all this and how much? Internet cable service costs about $40 per month, which is still a bit pricey for most consumers. But for the money, the cable company provides everything -- including Internet service. Under the ADSL scheme, phone companies and ISP's will both want to charge you for high-speed access. They'll have to come to an arrangement that makes the cost competitive.

So, all things considered, ADSL is promising technology. There's no reason why it can't work, given some time. But I wouldn't count on unwrapping high-speed Internet access with a Christmas computer this year.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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