AOL will be testing DSL (digital subscriber lines), a technology that maximizes the potential of regular copper phone lines by essentially splitting one line into three pipes: one for voice and the other two for sending and receiving huge packets of data at speeds more than 25 times faster than 56-kbps modems.
The price is relatively high for the speedy access, however. Eligible members will be charged $49.95 per month, which includes the monthly AOL subscription fee.
Still, "$50 for consumer access is still a lot for the money," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst with Forrester Research. Lopez sees AOL as needing to offer higher-priced services to businesses to subsidize lower-cost access for the mass market to which AOL caters.
In addition to the monthly cost, consumers will still have to purchase a DSL modem and have special equipment installed to use the service, she noted. In some areas of California, for instance, it costs $125 for service installation and another $600 for the modem itself.
CNET Radio talks to Forrester Research's Kate Delhagen
With a standardized DSL technology, consumers also could buy modems that would work anywhere that DSL service was offered. As it stands now, modems installed at the customer's home only work with equipment at a telco's main office from the same vendor, as was the case with early versions of 56-kbps modems.
Internet access providers across the country have been starting DSL trials. While the access is more expensive than that provided by a modem, Netizens and ISPs alike are attracted by the connectivity speeds the technology allows.
Analysts have long said that once the majority of Netizens get high-speed access, whether through DSL, cable modems, or T1 lines, content providers can beef up their offerings. Many are reluctant to offer multimedia features that make the Web more lively but also tend to jam up computers with slower connections.
AOL's DSL services will be provided by GTE Internetworking, which will be the go-between for AOL and the regional phone companies providing the DSL service, including Bell Atlantic and GTE.
Access and connection speeds have long been issues for AOL. Last year it faced modem shortages that kept members from being able to log on to the service. And members still complain about occasionally unreliable access.
High-speed access clearly would be a boon both for customers who are always looking for faster ways to log on and for AOL, because the time it takes users to download information would be greatly streamlined.
Anyone with DSL access also would not be using a modem to dial into the system, leaving that modem free for others.
"Our strategy is to foster a competitive broadband marketplace so that our members will have the benefit of a range of reasonably priced, easy-to-use high-speed technologies," AOL chief executive Steve Case said in a statement.
The initial field trials will take place in Birmingham, Alabama; Phoenix, Arizona; California's San Francisco Bay Area; the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington; and Redmond, Washington. Because regional telephone providers use different DSL equipment and multiple standards in different cities, AOL will be working with a number of providers, the company said.