AN ISDN WHOSE TIME HAS COMENow it's easier to get high-capacity phone lines, which vastly speed up Web surfing
Back in February, 1995, I wrote a column predicting that the digital telephone service called ISDN was the hot new thing for telecommuters and Internet surfers. I still feel that way, but I was a bit premature. The combination of hardware, software, and phone services needed to make this technology easy to use took longer than I expected. The good news is that easy ISDN is now a reality, at least in much of the U.S. So I will spend this column and next week's helping you take advantage of it.
ISDN, which stands for integrated services digital network, sends digital signals over standard copper wires. Even in its most basic configuration, ISDN can move up to 128 kilobits of data per second, far more than the fastest computer modem of 28.8 KBPS. Data-compression software can give still higher speeds, allowing you to download software from the Internet or view graphics-laden Web pages in seconds. Still-faster technologies, such as cable modems, may show up in a few areas late this year, but it will be several years before most people can purchase anything faster than ISDN. ``It may not be the greatest technology, but for now, it's the only game in town,'' says Charles Fitzgerald, program manager in Microsoft's Internet Platforms & Tools group.
So why hasn't everyone rushed out to get an ISDN line? For one thing, phone companies haven't provided much assistance in what can be a confusing process of obtaining one. And configuring a terminal adapter--the ISDN equivalent of a modem--to work with most software, has involved black magic.
PLUG AND PLAY. Things changed dramatically this spring, when Microsoft offered a free upgrade that lets Windows 95's built-in communications setup use ISDN adapters in the same way as modems. Other companies started pushing plug-and-play ISDN adapters costing as little as $200--competitive with 28.8 modems (I'll look at adapters next week.) Finally, Microsoft and the modem makers decided to run interference for phone company customers.
Motorola (800 894-4736) and U.S. Robotics (888 877-4736), for example, started call-in programs that guide would-be ISDN subscribers through the process of ordering a line and configuring equipment. Microsoft's Web-based Get ISDN program (www.microsoft.com/windows/ getisdn/) is a bit more ambitious. If your local phone service comes from Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, U S West, Pactel, GTE, Bell Canada, or soon, Ameritech, you can get information on pricing and availability. Software then guides you through the process of completing an order form, which Microsoft will forward to your local phone company.
All the assistance in the world can't solve some of the problems with ISDN. Nynex, which has lagged in ISDN installations, is not cooperating with the Microsoft effort. In some areas, ISDN is simply unavailable. And while prices vary widely, the service is almost always more expensive than a standard line. In Baltimore, Bell Atlantic charges $132 to install a business ISDN circuit. Service costs $36 to $40 a month plus 2 cents to 4 cents per minute. In Atlanta, Bell South installation costs $208; unlimited service is $91 a month. Keep in mind, though, that each ISDN circuit includes two phone lines, which can be combined for data or used separately for voice or fax.
Besides, your time is money, too, and ISDN could pay for itself quickly. An ISDN link to the Internet through Win95's Dial-Up Networking feature offers nearly all the convenience of a full-time net connection, with Web pages and mail on demand. If your office can handle remote access over ISDN, you can work at home and feel as if you're in the office. I do a lot of online research from home. And now that my ISDN connection is really humming at last, I can't figure out how I got along without it.
BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM
Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.