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Vendors push plain old ISDN

ISDN is taking a back seat to more exotic technologies such as cable modems and ADSL for high-speed Internet access, but it's making a comeback at Comdex.

LAS VEGAS, Nevada--ISDN has recently taken a back seat to more exotic technologies such as cable modems and ADSL for high-speed Internet access, but it's making a comeback at Comdex.

Companies such as Pacific Bell and Earthlink are announcing major ISDN expansions, and industry groups such as Bellcore and the Vendors' ISDN Association are rolling out initiatives to simplify installation for consumers and businesses.

Phone companies are trying to overcome criticism that it takes too long to get an ISDN line installed, that it costs too much, and that it is too complicated to configure. The battle to provide high-speed Net access is cutthroat and other technologies have been identified as the future of bandwidth, but ISDN has a potential edge because it is more widely available than the other, more hyped technologies, experts say.

"There have been so many horror stories about ISDN installation," said Tom Bayless, director of switched digital services for Pacific Bell, at Comdex. "Now we're setting out to make it easier."

Pac Bell, for example, announced a deal today to bundle Internet access with an ISDN line, as previously reported by CNET. The package will include all the software and hardware that is required to get the service up and running, the first such product of its kind. Retail price for the package, dubbed Home Pack, is $329 for the 3Com Corporation ISDN modem system, after a $50 rebate from Nortel's or Lucent Technologies, which also are providing equiment for the package. Installation charges for ISDN service and Pacific Bell Internet access are $125 and $49.95, respectively.

The complete Home Pack solution, including: the 3ComImpact IQ ISDN modem, ISDN line installation, Internet access and Netscape Web browser from Pacific Bell Internet Services, is available now to consumers for about $500. The monthly rate for access and usage charges vary slightly according to whether the line is business or residential.

Many users may still balk at the cost, but ISDN offers Net connections at up to 128 kbps, compared with the 28.8 kpbs available with most standard modems. Unlike cable modems, the new breed of 56-kpbs modems, or ADSL, ISDN is currently available.

Earthlink also announced a new ISDN service this week. It is being offered nationally at $34.95 per month. That comes with a 100 free hours but setup costs $50 extra. The company has partnered with Telamon to make it easier to order and install the service.

On another front, industry groups are rolling out initiatives to increase ISDN penetration. Bellcore introduced a software product at the show, dubbed ISDN Adviser, that helps telco sales teams match an ISDN product with a customer's needs. It simplifies the ordering process and makes sure that a user's equipment works with the service that is ordered, which is no easy task.

"With the increased demand for higher-bandwidth technologies to support videoconferencing, telecommuting, and Internet access, there is a need for a simplified method of ISDN service ordering," said Roger Savidge, technical product specialist for Bellcore's Language Standards organization.

Bellcore is the research arm of the Baby Bells, which supply most of ISDN connections. There are more than 500,000 ISDN lines installed nationally among the Baby Bells, including more than 170,000 by Bell Atlantic and 100,000 by Pacific Bell, according to industry estimates. Pac Bell hopes to double that total in 1997.

In another initiative announced here, the Vendor's ISDN Association and National ISDN Council said they would work together on standards to simplify ISDN use. The joint efforts will accelerate the availability of "plug-and-play" ISDN for telecommuters and Internet users, according to Garrett Jenkins, chairman of the National ISDN Council. Both groups represent companies that make and sell ISDN products.

Agreeing on technology standards is vital to making ISDN economical for both suppliers and users, noted Walt Mansell, chair of a technical committee for the Vendors ISDN Association.

The cable television industry has launched a similar initiative to create standards for making cable modems.