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Internet

Bandwidth for the "have-nots"

Industry types from telecom, cable, wireless cable, and DBS convene at the Bandwidth Solutions Summit '97. Among the goals: bandwidth via satellite for the "have-nots."

SAN FRANCISCO--Four industries today shared their blueprints for bringing the world a bigger, stronger, faster Internet, but warned that regulatory and financial hurdles lie ahead.

Representatives from telecommunications, cable, wireless cable, and direct broadcast satellite (or DBS) industries convened at the Bandwidth Solutions Summit '97. They were joined by those with an investment in the expansion of the Net, such as online publishers, ISPs, regulators, and top executives from computer networking companies.

Other hurdles confront the group; they face skepticism from many consumers, who complain about the price tag for faster Net access--an ADSL line, for example--costs an estimated $100 per month.

Although telcos have a monopoly on the most widespread current infrastructure for the Net--telephone lines--they are also heavily regulated, which makes it hard to compete with upcoming technologies, Pacific Bell president Dave Dorman said today.

"They need to let us provide service without regulation," Dorman said during a panel discussion.

Dorman said although Pac Bell has been able to handle current Net traffic with existing phone lines, the switch offices are being overloaded. As a result, Pac Bell wants to expand its ISDN and ADSL service, which is costly. Next Wednesday, the California Public Utilities Commission will vote on proposed 20 percent rate increase over the next year for Pac Bell's ISDN service. The company has battled for more than a year to hike rates in order to cover costs and increase its reach, it argues.

"Bandwidth is not free," Dorman concluded.

Companies are spending millions of dollars to bypass worldwide telecommunications networks via cable, fiber-optics, antennas, and satellites.

Panelists conceded that each technology has a place in the future. But the most telling answer might be found in deep pockets.

For example, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates helped start one of the companies represented at today's summit, Teledesic. By 2002, Teledesic will launch into space several hundred low-Earth-orbit satellites to beam bandwidth down to every corner of the world, according to its vice president Tren Griffin.

"We can supply broadband access from Indonesia to Los Angeles with no router," he said. "It's like getting a T1 anywhere on the face of the Earth. The network will give bandwidth to the 'have-nots' in the world."

Once the satellites are launched, it is a fixed cost. "It's cheap to the world. It will be a big leap past copper," said the panel's moderator, Tom Halhill, senior editor of Byte magazine.

Another company with hefty backing is Excalibur Group, owned by Time Warner. Mario Vecchi, the company's chief technology officer, said "hundred of millions of dollars" are being spent to keep rolling out Time Warner's fiber-optic and coaxial cable network, as well as Road Runner, its network service.

Using Time Warner's service, information can be download from the Internet at 10 mbps, 1,000 times faster than today's standard modems. The company estimates that by the end of the year, 4.5 million homes will be cable-ready for its service nationwide. The flat-rate service cost $35 to $40 per month, Vecchi said.

Executives of @Home, jointly owned by Comcast, Cox, and Tele-Communications Incorporated, also said they are continuing to roll out their Net access service as well as prepare for the launch of a companion service, @Work. As reported, @Work will provide high-speed Net access to companies.

Among telcos, Pac Bell also is gearing up to offer wireless cable in Southern California this spring, but not with Net access--at least initially.

Also on the horizon to increase bandwidth is wireless, or "terrestrial platforms." Two-year-old wireless venture Spike is working with Bay Networks' LANcity cable modem division to run its a test market for businesses in Nashua, New Hampshire.

The Spike system involves setting up a base antenna up to six miles away from the point of access, which allows for a high-speed Net connection.

The equipment costs businesses $2,000, plus a monthly fee slightly above that of the average T1 line--$300 to $600 per month--said Ed Champy, senior vice president of marketing for the company.

The pricing for high-speed Net access has had some consumers on edge. Said one: "I cannot imagine justifying $100 per month for ADSL, or another $44.95 to a cable company such as Time Warner. I cannot even get a cable person on the phone when I have a question about customer service."

Internet Editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.