HIGH SPEED INTERNET
From Diana J. Choyce
May 22 - 28, 2000
One of the perks of using the internet is quick access to information on any subject, and the power to download anything from full size books to software. The only catch is how patient one is with downloading time. Depending on your modem speed and telephone line, a full size program can take several hours. In this fast paced day and age, most of us can get very frustrated. Lately, however, consumers are finding better alternatives for high speed internet access. The competition among cable, telephone, wireless and cable companies is heating up. And that, hopefully, is good news for consumers.
Consumers like Zach Hamm are trading in their older access for internet services by cable companies. And the cable is one third the price of high speed services such as ISDN. "It was kind of a no-brainer, and I get almost 10 times the speed," said Hamm, who uses the connection to download large documents so he can work from home. It helps for fun things too: online gaming and graphics come in much better at the higher speeds. "What we definitely sense is that aggressive rollout by cable operators has accelerated at least the plans" by others to offer high-speed service, said Tom Eagan, a cable and satellite industry analyst for PaineWebber Group. It has helped fuel other industries that "from a competitive perspective were more talk than action." In 1999 the number of cable internet customers increased by 164 percent or a total of almost two million people. About two million more are expected to be added this year. The National Cable Television Association says the industry spent $10.8 billion last year upgrading their systems so they have two-way capabilities. That means cable companies also could provide local telephone service in addition to Internet access on their lines " giving them the ability to bundle services together. "There's no alternative that comes close," said Steve Lang of AT&T Broadband, which delivers high-speed service over its cable systems. He said the emergence of satellite companies offering programming helped spur cable companies to look at giving consumers more. "This is what competition does, it forces the industry to focus on where they can distinguish themselves in the marketplace."
Other high speed options are racing to catch up to cable as well. "It is a land grab," said Liz Fetter, chief executive officer of NorthPoint Communications, which offers quick connections over copper phones wires, referred to as DSL or Digital Subscriber Lines. Companies offering DSL service have attracted hundreds of thousands of new customers in the past year. Fetter said new applications are driving consumer demand for faster service "referred to as "broadband." Once consumers go that route, they are not going back, she added. "The change to a high-speed connection is analogous to the change from the horse and buggy to automobiles," Fetter said. Her company has more than 40,000 customers, primarily businesses. Asymmetric digital subscriber lines (ADSL), which connect at 8 megabits a second, are becoming very popular but like any other technology it has its drawbacks, One is that it requires the phone company to make a service call to the customers residence to install a "splitter" that separates voice and data traffic on the same line. So right now the availability of ADSL is spotty. The International Telecommunications Union, however, approved a new standard known as "G.Lite" last month. Yet another new type of digital subscriber line, G.Lite should make it easier for phone companies to upgrade standard phone lines for high-speed data transmission. G-Lite can pull data from the internet up to twenty five times faster than todays 56K modems. But it still can only upload at 56K. Even though it is slower than traditional ADSL, customers can "hook in" by simply buying a special $300 DSL modem. With both G.Lite and ADSL, surfing the Net doesn't cause busy signals, since voice and data can travel over the same line. Also, users have a constant connection, eliminating the need to sign on and off and the associated hourly connection charges. "By the middle of next year, you'll see some pretty significant rollouts," says Michael Tzannes, CEO of Bedford, Mass.-based DSL developer Aware.
Companies like MCI WorldCom and Sprint are looking at a "third-way" into the home, using wireless frequencies to deliver super fast Web connections. MCI Worldcom has conducted test trials of its high-speed Internet access in Dallas, Boston and Jackson, Miss. Using slices of the airwaves originally designated for wireless cable TV, the company is hoping to meet the demand for faster Web service, particularly in areas that phone and cable lines don't pass through. "It has tremendous reach," said John Stupka, MCI WorldCom's president of wireless solutions. For example, the service can reach customers 30 miles away from the transmission tower, making it possible to give access to underserved or less populated areas. A test of the system shows its power: a satellite image that would take two hours to download with a dial-up connection zips onto the screen in two to three minutes. Each technology poses potential shortfalls, including how far the networks can reach or how many consumers it can support before service is degraded. But experts predict that consumer appetite will make it possible for the competing systems to coexist. "I think there is a big enough market for many modes of distribution," Eagan said.
Satellite connections are just beginning to enter the market. Hughs Network Systems, a unit of Hughes Electronics, will offer consumers the new Internet service and DirectTV television service over a single small satellite dish. The company has about 60,000 domestic and 140,000 worldwide customers using its DirectPC service. DirectPC downloads the Internet to the dish-shaped antennas at speeds far higher than a conventional telephone connection. But users who want to upload files or send e-mail messages must use a phone line. Until recently, two-way transmissions required a much larger dish. But Hughes has developed a technology that compresses its signals to make its connections more user friendly. The new services should be available by the fourth quarter of this year. Although prices have not been announced, it is expected to cost $40 to $50 a month to keep it competitive with cable and DSL pricing.