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PC, cable giants to plug cable modems

Intel and Microsoft will join forces with TCI and Time Warner to promote high-speed Internet access via cable.

Intel and Microsoft, which recently formed a group touting high-speed Internet access through the use of DSL (digital subscriber line) technology, are joining forces with companies such as Tele-Communications Incorporated and Time Warner to promote even faster Internet access via cable.

Computer and cable industry heavyweights today formed the Cable Broadband Forum (CBF), a nonprofit corporation that will work to "increase public awareness" of cable technologies. Initially, the group will focus on cable modems and then digital TV set-top boxes.

"Our objective is to raise awareness that [Internet service via cable companies] is in the market today and not a developing technology," said Tom Cullen, vice president of Internet services for MediaOne and chairman of the CBF. The CBF said that there already 200,000 customers with high-speed Net access from cable operators and that revenue to operators will triple by the end of 1998, based on figures from market research firm Kinetic Strategies.

In January, Intel, Microsoft, Compaq Computer, and a consortium of telephone providers detailed a plan for installing another high-speed Net access technology--DSL--through the Universal ADSL Working Group (UAWG). (Compaq is not yet a member of the CBF.)

Intel and Microsoft?s endorsement of Internet services over cable as well as via DSL technology is merely pragmatic. Internet access is a key factor that is spurring computer sales, and both companies want to make multimegabit access to the Internet possible in order to keep sales rolling.

However, the easy-to-install version of DSL that Intel and Microsoft are hoping for isn't ready. Cable vendors, by contrast, have basically ironed out the technological standards needed to make the various pieces of equipment work with each other--a critical factor that will allow consumers to one day purchase equipment at a lower cost than now possible.

"Microsoft and Intel are relatively agnostic today about whether someone's connection is over coaxial cable or copper," Cullen acknowledged. But Cullen thinks that over time, cable will come to be viewed as the preferred platform for high-speed access because it could offer higher access speeds than competing DSL technologies.

Using a cable modem, a customer could download data at a maximum of 30 mbps. Although the speed would slow depending on how many subscribers use the service concurrently, it will remain faster than the 1.5-mbps pace promised by the easy-to-install DSL "lite," as it is called. (Even at that rate, users would download data around 30 times faster than can be delivered through 56-kbps modems.)

But while cable access technology is available in a growing number of markets, it is not available in all regions. Part of the CBF's goal is to conduct an "education program is to tell people what our deployment plans are," Cullen notes.

Also, cable operators are going to have to invest millions over the next few years to upgrade their systems to be able to carry two-way Internet traffic. Although the telephone giants face their own investment requirements, cable companies may have to invest more and may not have the same access to capital, according to analysts.