The battle over who gets to bring broadband to the home is becoming more fierce as a forgettably named technology that runs on regular phone connections--asymmetrical digital subscriber lines--picks up speed.
ADSL is a prime high-speed alternative to cable modems for replacing dial-up access that can often be frustratingly slow, especially for connections to the home. It is the latest player to make a name for itself, despite its bland acronym, in the fight over which industry will control the all-important bandwidth on the Internet, the telephone companies or the cable operators.
ADSL, a variant of another type of technology known as XDSL, can deliver data at 1.5 mbps over a private telephone line and is the weapon the telcos hope to use against the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of cable modems, which could theoretically bring the Internet to the home at speeds up to 10 mbps.
ADSL is also faster than ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), which transmits over the public switched telephone network at speeds up to 64 kpbs. The fastest standard consumer connections run at speeds of 28.8 kpbs.
This week alone, Cisco Systems, StrataCom, and PairGain Technologies joined together at the Supercomm telecommunications trade show in Dallas to demonstrate XDSL technology. In addition, Performance Telecom announced an ADSL modem, Bell Canada unveiled plans to launch an ADSL service in the first half of 1997, and European telco equipment maker Ericsson announced a ADSL modem solution called Cobra Web.
The telecommunications companies certainly aren't pushing ADSL because it's perfect. But with users desperate for faster connections, the telephone companies are equally desperate to keep the cable companies away from the Net access market. And ADSL has the virtue of running over standard copper phone lines, while cable modem connections will require a new cable infrastructure to be created.
But that doesn't mean that making ADSL a reality will be easy. "It's basically ISDN plus plus," said Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, a technology newsletter based in New York City. "Whatever problems they're having today in installing ISDN they'll have with ADSL. In addition, there isn't an ordinary phone company employee who even knows what ADSL stands for."
Still, everyone knows that broadband is where it's at, and networking companies of all kinds want to be on ADSL in case it wins out over cable. Cisco, for example, is working with StrataCom and PairGain on a new technology to be launched sometime next year where Cisco will provide the routers, StrataCom the high-speed switches, and PairGain the digital subscriber line modems.
Bell Canada, meanwhile, plans to launch a trial of ADSL service in September in the Canadian communities of Kanata, Ontario, and St. Bruno, Qu?bec, where participants will be able to test ADSL in their homes. Because voice calls use only one percent of a line's bandwidth, ADSL allows simultaneous voice and data transmission on the same line without any degradation of service, according to Bell Canada.
Modem maker Performance Telecom has also announced a 6-mbps ADSL modem to ship in the third quarter. Prices will range from $1,200 to $2,800 depending upon configuration and volume of purchase. Performance has also been conducting an ADSL trial north of the border in Edmonton, Alberta.
And for Europeans, an ADSL modem solution called Cobra Web with a download rate of 768kbps is expected at the end of the year from Ericsson. The company has not yet set pricing.
"I don't think any of [the broadband solutions] are especially well-designed, but if they get more people connected, I'm happy," Michalski said.