DSL Net access comes to Baltimore

Infospeed: Bell Atlantic's high-speed service lets users talk and surf the Web simultaneously over the same phone line.

August 30, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Good news, city-dwelling Internet junkies: Affordable high-speed Web access has arrived.

Bell Atlantic has quietly started offering its digital subscriber line service, Infospeed DSL, to parts of Baltimore and the surrounding counties. The technology is more than 12 times as fast as the quickest dial-up modems and allows subscribers to surf the Web and chat on the phone at the same time -- all over a standard copper telephone wire.

The company plans to officially unveil the service early next month.

Baltimore is the latest battleground between telephone companies and cable providers over high-speed Internet access. Cable companies such as Comcast Corp.-- which offers high-speed @Home service in Baltimore County and parts of Howard and Harford counties -- got an early start and now have more than 1 million Internet customers nationwide.

But DSL is quickly emerging as a serious rival to cable as telephone companies scramble to upgrade their central offices. Only 159,000 people around the country now have DSL, but the technology "is growing at a significantly faster pace and catching up rapidly," says analyst Laurie Falconer at TeleChoice, a Boston telecommunications consulting firm.

Bell Atlantic says it hopes to have 100,000 DSL subscribers by the end of this year.

Cable and DSL technology both offer a significant speed boost over dial-up modems, which top out at 56 kilobits per second. Bell Atlantic's slowest DSL offering fetches data at speeds up to 640 kbps, while cable can theoretically pull down 10 megabits per second. Under both systems, the "upstream" speeds for data transmitted from customers' computers are significantly slower.

Just as importantly, both cable and DSL maintain a round-the-clock connection to the Internet without tying up the phone line.

But in the long run, some analysts say, DSL might have a slight leg up on cable. One reason is that more homes have copper telephone wires snaking into them than coaxial cable. Also, cable technology forces subscribers in the same area to share a single pipeline to the Internet. If too many flood the Net at once, everyone's speed can plummet. DSL users don't have to share bandwidth this way.

DSL is not perfect, however, and Bell Atlantic officials caution that not everyone will be able to get it. DSL users must live within 2.5 wire miles of an upgraded telephone company central office and have a phone line free of devices that amplify or divert the signal. This might exclude some customers in rural areas and apartment complexes.

Bell Atlantic's Infospeed DSL starts at $49.95 a month and includes a subscription to Bell Atlantic Net, the company's Internet service. Customers pay $100 to have a technician install the service in their homes, plus $325 for a DSL modem (although Bell Atlantic frequently offers significant promotional discounts).

Comcast's @Home Internet service, by comparison, costs $149 for installation, plus $39.95 a month if you're already a cable subscriber ($49.95 if you're not.)

Even though DSL service is fairly new, prices are already falling across the country as competitors lease space in local phone company central offices and build their own networks.

America Online is expected to launch an inexpensive consumer DSL service in the coming months using lines leased from Bell Atlantic and others. Start-up telecom companies such as Covad Communications and Flashcom, meanwhile, are rolling out DSL service around the country, including Baltimore. While most of these small DSL firms cater to small business, some have started to offer residential DSL packages at prices competitive with Bell Atlantic's.

Not to be outdone, the city's cable provider, Tele-Communications Inc. (recently acquired by AT&T), is upgrading its network and says it plans to offer Internet service in the city by next summer. By that time, the city's cable service might already be owned by Comcast as part of a complex customer swap among the three companies.

Customers who opt for speed might pay a price in reliability. Several cable and DSL providers around the country, including Bell Atlantic, have experienced outages in recent months.

"There's always a few kinks early on," says Bell Atlantic spokesman Ells Edwards. But he says the company isn't worried. "There's so much pent-up demand for high-speed Internet. People are calling us all the time saying, 'When's it going to be available here?'"

Residential DSL is available in Baltimore from Bell Atlantic (www.bellatlantic.net) and Flashcom (www.flashcom.com). Faster but more expensive business DSL service is offered by Covad Communications (www.covad.com), NorthPoint Communications (www.northpointcom.com) and Rhythms NetConnections Inc. (www.rhythms.com).

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