Through a combination of new technology and lots of cash, telephone companies are beginning to extend their high-speed Internet services into suburban and rural areas, where previously broadband Net connections have been sparse.
The investments are good news for would-be wired suburbanites who have found themselves outside the reach of the high-speed Net. But they mark a new threat to cable TV companies' broadband business, which so far have been one of the only technologies available in these areas.
SBC Communications has been the most vocal about its high-speed plans, last month touting a $6 billion investment it says will ultimately make broadband Net services available to 80 percent of its customers. But other telephone companies now aim to bring their outlying customers into the high-speed fold over the next several years.
"They're all moving down this path, though none as publicly as SBC," said Jay Hilbert, vice president of sales for Alcatel, which provides telephone companies with high-speed network equipment.
Bridging the broadband gap
Telephone companies use a technology called digital subscriber line, or DSL, to provide high-speed Internet access over existing phone lines.
Yet high-speed Net transmissions can only travel about three and a half miles over traditional copper telephone wires. For the most part, this has meant anyone who lived farther than three miles from their telephone company's central hub couldn't get DSL.
In cities, this isn't a problem. Telephone offices are often close together, and most delays have come in waiting for telephone companies to upgrade their own technology to support DSL.
In suburban and rural areas, however, it has been a different story. Many new subdivisions and suburban developments are far out of range of the central offices, giving their residents access only to cable or wireless-based high-speed Net service--if anything at all.
The big local phone companies have often drawn fiber-optic cable out to these areas--but existing technology makes it difficult to mix DSL and fiber-optic connections.
Enter new technology from companies like Alcatel, Lucent Technologies, and Newbridge Networks. While still in the trial phase, their new systems will allow telephone companies to carry DSL signals more easily over fiber-optic lines--essentially as far as needed. Once the signal reaches traditional telephone wires at the end of the high-speed pipe, the three-and-a-half mile limit kicks in again. But once in place, these systems will greatly expand DSL's practical reach.
"If we can get to [the end of the fiber], then we can support almost anyone," said Jeff Bolton, director of GTE's DSL program. "That fiber link could be any distance. It could be 50 miles."
The new systems could improve the situation in rural areas that have experienced a dramatic growth in population. In BellSouth's territory, nearly 40 percent of customers are now unable to get DSL because of problems with fiber-optic connections, for example.
These systems are not a solution for all DSL's problems, however. The technology is still hampered by other types of limitations with phone wires, making it unavailable to some homes even in urban areas.
The new technology may also still not reach those in remote areas, where there generally isn't much demand for high-speed services, the companies said.
"This doesn't mean that the guy who thinks it's cool to live five miles down a country road is going to get DSL," said John Goldman, a BellSouth spokesman. "But if a subdivision with a lot of people who wanted high-speed services goes in, that's a good candidate."
Technology from Alcatel and the other equipment companies is still in the final stages of testing, according to the Bell companies, and will likely be ready for widespread deployment early next year.