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Fulfilling the Need for Speed

Source: Houston Chronicle, March 9, 1997
By Dwight Silverman

When William R. Edwards first started using the Internet, surfing the World Wide Web with his relatively slow modem was frustrating at best. He avoided using the Net, even though it held information useful to his oil consulting business.

"It was not a good experience," said Edwards, who works out of his west Houston apartment. "It took forever for me to download anything."

But that changed when Edwards became one of the few people in Houston to use his cable TV connection to access the Internet. He went from poking along at 14,400 bits per second to screaming along at 512,000 bits per second with a device called a cable modem.

Edwards now has what every other computer user wants -- lots of bandwidth, the speed at which people get information from the Internet. He gets from here to there in a unique way -- via the same wire that brings CNN and MTV into his home.

"It's wonderful; it's great," said Edwards, barely able to contain his glee. "Oh, it's much, much better than what I had."

For now, only customers of a small local cable TV system called Phonoscope can share Edwards' joy. But late this year or early next, cable modems from TCI and Warner Cable and a new phone technology will compete to offer relief to those chafing against the speed limitations of traditional modems, which have been described as "trying to suck up the ocean through a soda straw."

Surveys show that the biggest complaint about using the Internet's World Wide Web is how long it takes for information to reach a user's desktop, even with fast modem speeds of 28,800 or 33,600 bits per second. This lack of bandwidth to the home is considered the biggest obstacle to making the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, a mass medium.

Some observers think a lack of bandwidth may even be constraining America economically.

"We really need this bandwidth badly. We are holding up our economy," said Bob Stearns, senior vice president for corporate development at Compaq Computer Corp. "We are now an information society, and if we can't get the message on time from point A to point B, then we are hurting ourselves."

Without greater bandwidth, say people like Stearns, using the Internet is more frustrating than useful. And with the vast majority of people still using 14,400-bit-per-second modems, according to a recent study, developers of Web sites are loath to offer such bells and whistles as video and software programs that would run over the Net.

"The next-generation killer application for the Internet can't be developed until we solve the bandwidth problem," said Ken Kennedy, a Rice University professor recently named by President Clinton to a panel studying how to build a more powerful Internet.

But it may remain that way for a while. The various technologies that may address the problem won't be cheap when they get here, and their expected arrivals have been steadily pushed back.

Edwards is ahead of the game because he lives in an apartment complex served by Phonoscope, a small cable television company that is one of the few in the country to provide cable modem connections. Phonoscope, which services mostly apartments and the downtown area of Houston, teamed up with NeoSoft -- the city's oldest Internet access provider -- to offer the high-speed service last May.

Warner and TCI, the two larger cable systems that serve most of the Houston area, have been promising cable modem service for some time. TCI said last year it would offer its service -- operated by a California company called @Home -- in the second half of 1997. Warner Cable said its Road Runner service -- yes, it uses the Warner Bros. cartoon character of the same name as its mascot -- would start sometime this year.

Both companies have pushed those times back. TCI, beset nationally by financial problems, has halted its fiber-optic upgrade -- required for the two-way communications necessary for an Internet connection -- and is now saying @Home won't be available here until early 1998.

Warner also will not have Road Runner up and running until that time, according to Ron McMillan, the Houston system's general manager. He said the corporate team in charge of Road Runner doesn't have the manpower to staff a Houston rollout until then.

"There are only so many people who know how to do this," he said.

Those delays may give Southwestern Bell a chance to grab market share with a competing service called Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line, or ADSL. Mike Turner, president of Bell's Houston-area region, said ADSL should be available later this year, though it might not be launched until early 1998 -- about the same time as cable modems. Bell officials said last October that ADSL would be rolled out as early as mid-1997.

Bell is now testing ADSL with the help of Shell Oil employees. Turner said it's being used in a telecommuting experiment, but so far has not been turned up to "full speed" -- about 6 million or 7 million bits per second.

The two competing technologies each have their own benefits and drawbacks.

A cable modem is a box -- slightly larger than the traditional external modem used to link a computer to phone lines. It connects to a user's computer through an ethernet card, commonly used to link personal computers in an office network.

Information coming from and going to the Internet moves along cable system frequencies that are not being used to carry television signals. It can move at very rapid speeds, up to 30 million bits per second, though many operate at less. The Phonoscope boxes, for example, send and receive information at 512,000 bits per second. Company technician John Cox said an upgrade to speeds of up to 43 million bits per second is in the works.

With a cable modem, bandwidth is shared with other nearby users. Neighboring homes and apartments link to the system at a central node. A bigger cable connects from there to a central station, called a head end.

It's a lot like a water system, where mains branch out to smaller pipes, eventually entering homes through relatively small conduits.

Critics of cable modem technology say the cable TV system design is its biggest drawback. While it's faster than ADSL, a cable modem's speed can bog down if a lot of nearby users are trying to access the Internet at the same time.

But Warner Cable's McMillan said the fact is that even if the system were to bog down, it still would be faster than one of the speediest Internet connections currently available from the phone company: a T1 line, which can transmit data at 1.5 million bits per second and is so expensive it's usually used only by businesses.

"We design our system in 500-home cable nodes," McMillan said. "Let's say we have 50 percent market penetration, so that 250 of those homes actually subscribe to cable. And let's say that 15 percent of those subscribe to our Road Runner service. That's 30 to 40 customers on that node. We can handle that if we engineer it properly."

Although neither Warner nor TCI officials will say how much the service will cost, cable modem Internet services in other parts of the country cost between $30 and $60 per month, often depending on whether the customer also subscribes to cable TV. There also is often a hefty installation fee in the $150-$175 range.

The Phonoscope/NeoSoft service costs users $45 a month, with a $75 installation fee and a deposit on the cable modem itself.

In many cases the speed at which a user receives is much greater than the speed at which information is sent. Cable operators figure most users will be pulling more information from the Internet than they'll be sending to it.

An ADSL modem connects to a computer in the same way -- through an ethernet card -- but ties into ordinary phone lines.

ADSL originally was developed by the regional phone companies as a way to get into the business of providing video services, such as pay movies. Although it's fast, it didn't work quite as well as hoped for moving images, but it does work well enough to provide a dramatic boost over the phone companies' other high-speed offering, ISDN, or Integrated Services Digital Network.

ADSL can receive at up to 7 million or 8 million bits per second, but can send at only about 500,000 bits per second, which is still about twice the speed of ISDN. An ADSL connection goes directly to an Internet provider's system, bypassing the phone company's voice network, and its bandwidth is not shared.

This technology also has limitations. It's not as fast as cable modems, and there are distance limits -- a closed ADSL connection can only be so long before the signal going across it declines in quality.

The hardware used to make the connection is relatively expensive, though a coalition of phone companies -- including Southwestern Bell -- have joined together in a move to drive the costs down. They've told ADSL hardware makers that they'll buy in bulk if the manufacturers can produce enough of the devices to keep the price low.

As with cable modems, information will come to the computer faster than it can be sent out with ADSL.

Bell's Turner said ADSL will be competitive with cable modems in pricing. However, the only regional phone company to have announced a launch of ADSL service, U S West, has said it will charge $75 per month. That's well above the average $35 a month being charged for cable modem service in other parts of the country.

Pricing also presents a ticklish marketing problem for Southwestern Bell, which charges $58 a month for its current high-speed ISDN offering, sold as DigiLine. Bell would find itself in the position of selling a faster service at a lower cost if it can bring ADSL to Houston at prices that compete with cable modems.

Turner implied the price of ISDN would come down when ADSL arrives.

"ISDN will continue to be a viable product for customers who want a little slower bandwidth and a little cheaper price," he said.

These prices, though, remain substantially higher than the cost of a simple phone line -- the way most people access the Internet from home today. A residential phone line in Houston costs about $15 a month, including taxes.

And the price issue may keep everyday users away from these faster services for a while.

A recent study by Jupiter Communications, a New York online market research firm, showed that last year, 64 percent of computer users still connected to the Internet and online services by using 14,400-bit-per-second modems. This year, though, faster 28,800- and 33,600-bit-per-second modems are expected to have 54 percent of the market.

Even by 2000, according to the Jupiter study, cable modems will have only 8 percent of the market, ADSL 3 percent and ISDN 6 percent. Most people -- 65 percent -- will be using new 56,000-bit-per-second modems just introduced last month.

"It is questionable how and if telcos and cable companies can deliver on their promise of broadband to the home," said Wen Liao, a senior analyst at Jupiter. "Although there's still some hope for technologies such as ADSL and cable modems in the longer term, for now improvements in dial-up, in the form of the 56,000-bit-per-second modem, will have to do -- although this is still not the fat pipe of our dreams."

Other bandwidth solutions are also being touted, including satellite-based connections to the Internet and wireless cable -- an advanced form of microwave communications -- but they, too, remain pricey and unavailable to most people.

Experts are divided on whether the phone or cable companies will come out on top in the bandwidth race.

Compaq's Stearns thinks the phone companies have a leg up.

"I've sat down with people from both the cable companies and the phone companies," said Stearns, whose job is to track new technologies and bring them home to Compaq. "The cable companies have great presentations -- great slides. But the phone companies have the technology, and they know how to run an interactive network."

Rice's Kennedy, on the other hand, believes the cable companies will triumph.

"I am betting on cable modem as being the eventual winner," Kennedy said. "The phone companies aren't good at much of anything other than basic phone service."

Internet technologists fairly salivate when they consider what could be done if high bandwidth became ubiquitous.

For example, Phonoscope's Cox said his company is planning to offer extensive multimedia content to customers once the faster cable modems are in place.

"We're looking at CD-ROM servers that would be accessible only within our system," Cox said, referring to devices that could play digital movies and other applications. "We could do some very interesting things with 43 megabits per second of bandwidth."

Others believe such technologies as desktop teleconferencing and video phones, which have languished despite dropping equipment costs because of poor-quality images, would finally take off.

Even if bandwidth were to open up at home, there's still the question of whether the Internet itself -- originally designed to handle little more than e-mail and simple computer file transfers -- could withstand the demands of millions of high-bandwidth connections clamoring for multimedia.

Bob Metcalfe, the man credited with inventing ethernet, has been writing for some time in his column for InfoWorld magazine that the Internet is on the verge of collapse. Metcalfe's predictions so far have not come to pass, and his theories are controversial.

"The Internet is a very distributed system -- many different providers make up the Internet," said Rob Hagens, director of Internet engineering at MCI. "The likelihood of them all going down at the same time is infinitesimally small. I don't think that is going to happen."

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