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Faster Net access comes at a price

Companies agree that cable modems will be a technology for consumers while digital subscriber lines will be aimed at businesses.

ATLANTA--At Spring Comdex, representatives from Hayes Microcomputer, Paradyne, and 3Com (COMS) gathered here to discuss future Internet connection technologies, reaching a consensus that cable modems will be the technology of choice for consumers while digital subscriber line (DSL) products will be aimed at businesses.

While ISDN is a mature technology that can deliver speeds of up to 128 kbps, panelists said, it continues to be an overpriced service that is hard to install. People are turning to cable modem and DSL technologies to deliver on promises left largely unfilled by ISDN in the U.S. market, they contend.

"The advantage of cable modems is that the cable companies can [install] them easily. Customers will get to download at 10 to 30 mbps and send information at 10 mbps," says Alan Adamson, director of broadband products for Hayes.

Currently, most cable companies are only set up to send information, usually in the form of a television show, to viewers. Hayes is working on a cable modem system that would simplify installation by using the existing cable network for high-speed downstream data delivery while using the phone network to send data.

Cable modems are most likely to become the consumer service of the future for a number of reasons, according to Reginald Best, manager of remote access products for 3Com. He cites that cable companies already have "pipes" in a tremendous number of homes, the technology is suitable for the demands of Internet usage, and that the service can be offered at flat rates.

Factors that could limit the rollout of cable modem services include the cable industry's reputation for bad service and that the generally weak financial position of the companies leaves little money to invest in new offerings.

One form of DSL technologies, such as RADSL, or rate adaptive DSL, also offers the holy grail of high-speed access. RADSL uses the current phone lines used by today's slower analog modems, but connects to another digital modem at the telephone company's main branch to achieve faster speeds.

RADSL service could offer customers a range of access speeds from 500 kbps to 7 mbps in the downstream direction and up to 1 mbps upstream at a variety of pricing rates, according to Frank Wiener, vice president of DSL products for Paradyne.

DSL, on the other hand, will be deployed rapidly in key geographic regions because phone companies are investing millions of dollars, Wiener says.

However, he noted, "Commercial [DSL] service will precede residential service because of service pricing." High-speed DSL service could cost anywhere from $40 to $150 a month, not including Internet access costs. For this reason, Paradyne's Wiener feels that mass-market DSL will most likely see initial services offered at around 500 kbps.

Both DSL and RADSL have a reasonably good chance of getting consumers and businesses hooked up in the near future, says 3Com's Best.

The very-near future still leaves the mass market with its current options--ISDN or analog modem service. Best says incremental advances are being offered by analog modems, which are capable of around 40 kbps to 45 kbps using new and incompatible technologies from either Rockwell Semiconductor and Lucent or U.S. Robotics. The good news is that standards could be adopted by early next year.

The participants seemed to think that every communications technology, whether it be cable or analog modems, ISDN, or DSL, has its trade-offs in price and performance. Want more performance? Consumers or businesses who can't live without high-speed Internet access are going to pay a premium.