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ISDN ANSWERS THE NEED FOR SPEED

Earlier this year, I grew tired of trying to get on to my standard-issue America Online service and began hunting around for a faster way to surf the Net.

I eventually graduated to a technology fix that's five times faster than my old 28.8-kbps modem, bought a copy of Netscape Navigator, signed up with a real-live ISP (internet service provider), and invested the money and time to setup a full-blown ISDN (integrated services digital network) line.

An ISDN line is a special high-speed telephone line. It resembles a fat pipe through which data, like water, can travel faster than the average skinny phone line. While it's costlier than a standard phone hookup, ISDN's advantage is that digital information can flow more swiftly, making it far less painful to view images, open Web pages, and download software from the Net than it is with a standard modem.

Once I made the switch, I was immediately, utterly hooked. I'm now an unabashed Net-head. No wonder. For anyone who wants to spend serious time exploring the Web, the benefits of ISDN are immediate and obvious. Not only is the difference in speed a boon but ISDN no longer suffers from its reputed unreliability. (For everything you've always wanted to know about ISDN, check out Dan Keigel's ISDN Page at www.alumni.caltech.edu/dank/isdn/isdn_ai.html#WHAT.)

Although I'm a convert, the conversion process itself is not an experience I'd care to repeat. Ordering, installing, and configuring all the necessary components for ISDN is complicated and time-consuming. And expensive: My ISDN cost about $800 to set up, and I got off easy.

Here's how it went. First, I had to order the service from the phone company, which charged me about $125 to install the line. Prices range between $70 and $500, depending on where you live (in some rural areas of the country, it's still impossible to get ISDN). While I waited the two weeks for the technician to come install the line, I shopped around for an ISP that could support the ISDN connection. I wanted to find a local provider, because I knew that I wanted to avoid any long-distance charges when making my Internet calls. After calling half a dozen different providers listed in my phone book, I chose Internex, an outfit that charges me $29 a month.

Next, I shopped for the hardware at the local Circuit City. A tech-head friend, who swore that I'd have "no trouble" getting everything set up, sent me out with a shopping list: $500 for an Ascend Pipeline 25 router (a small, flat box connected to the computer which "routes" traffic among multiple computers), which he convinced me would make a cleaner, better connection to my ISP than a $400 ISDN modem; $40 for a LinkSys Ethernet card, which would let my PC talk to the router; $10 for a serial cable. Aside from the sharp pain in the pocketbook, that process was fairly acceptable.

Installing the hardware wasn't hard. I just plugged the card into a slot inside my computer, then connected the router to the back of the computer with the serial cable. The real pain came when I began wrestling with software. First, I went into the dreaded Network area in my Windows Control Panel to configure my computer for TCP/IP, a protocol that only a UNIX programmer can love. After spending two hours wrestling with "subnet masks" and "DNS servers," I swallowed my pride and turned to my propeller-head friend for help. He also aided me in configuring the router software, which might easily have eaten several frustrating hours of my time. Only later, I learned I could have asked my ISP to hook me up with a $55-an-hour consultant, thus saving much psychological wear-and-tear both on myself and my put-upon friend. In hindsight, I probably should have made the investment.

When the technicians from Pacific Bell -- which provided the line hookup for the ISDN -- showed up, they followed a procedure similar to the installation of a standard phone line. First, they hunted around for the switch box in the office I share with a couple of architects, and plied their magic there. Next, they came into my cubby and drilled into the wall directly above the standard phone jack, installing a special ISDN jack. Elapsed time: about 30 minutes.

Given all the hassle and the cost, is the line worth it? For me, the answer is still a resounding yes. I pay $29 a month to the ISP, and between $90 and $120 a month to Pacific Bell, all of which I can write off as a business expense. (Even if I couldn't write it off, I feel it was worth the investment.) If I wanted to consolidate, I could turn to Pacific Bell for ISP service too, but I won't consider doing that unless my current provider either sloughs off or raises rates through the roof.

Now, going back to the bad old days of a 28.8 modem is unthinkable. It takes me seconds to open a Web page. I can download software in minutes instead of hours. I can follow my reporter's nose to view dozens of sites in an hour. I literally have at my fingertips a gigantic research library that is becoming more and more important in my everyday work. Despite the pain -- and the expense -- it's the only way for a serious surfer like me to go.

By Brownyn Fryer in Santa Cruz, Calif.


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