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Big bandwidth finally here, sort of

Yes, Virginia, there really will be broadband Internet access in 1996: in a few places, for a few people.

Yes, Virginia, there really will be higher-bandwidth Internet access in 1996. At least in a few places, for a few people.

After months of guessing about when cable modems would actually show up in American homes, two companies, Time Warner Cable and Telecommunications Incorporated, are set to launch commercial Internet access and other interactive services using cable lines this year. At the same time, two other companies, GTE and Pacific Bell, are running trials of a rival technology called ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line) that runs over regular phone lines and should provide consumers with an alternate route to broadband connections in early 1997.

GTE today announced a new ADSL trial that will use regular phone lines to bring high-speed Net access to homes in Redmond, Washington, a location picked to take advantage of Microsoft's heavy involvement in the project. The first phase of the trial is already under way, using about 40 Microsoft and GTE employees as guinea pigs to test Internet and private network access.

ADSL is a subtle derivative of yet another technology called XDSL, and is competing with cable modems to be the next important delivery system as the Internet evolves towards greater bandwidth, faster transmissions, and richer, more complex media such as full-motion video.

ADSL has the advantage of running over existing telephone lines, while the cable television infrastructure must be upgraded for two-way digital communications. Once upgraded, however, cable is a much fatter downstream pipe, with a data transmission rate of up to 10 mbps. ADSL lets users access the Internet at speeds up to 1.5 mbps downstream to the user's home or office, and 64 kbps and upstream from the user to the central server. Higher speeds can be achieved based on modem type and network traffic.

GTE's ADSL trial will continue through the end of the year with more users, as well as a variety of modem brands. Microsoft products, such as email and electronic commerce software, will be featured as the tested applications.

Pacific Bell has a foot in both high-speed camps. It announced plans Tuesday to run tests in Northern California of both cable modems on its full-service cable network in San Jose, and ADSL over the phone lines in the suburb of San Ramon, southeast of Oakland. Both trials are expected to run through the end of this year, with limited commercial service to begin in 1997.

By deploying both technologies, Pacific Bell hopes to provide broadband access no matter which way the technological trends turn. "XDSL gives customers a choice where Pac Bell doesn't have full-service access," Pacific Telesis spokesman Craig Watts said.

Despite the technical difficulty of upgrading cable systems, which often requires ripping up city streets, cable modem services appear to be ahead of ADSL in the race to deliver actual service, albeit in limited areas.

Time Warner Cable is launching its national Road Runner service on September 10, with 300,000 customers in Akron and Canton, Ohio immediately eligible for service. Road Runner, which in testing was called Line Runner, will be the first commercial service of its kind, unless cable Internet provider @Home steals Time Warner's thunder by debuting its service just north of Silicon Valley in Fremont, California.

Officials at TCI, the cable operator that will pipe @Home's interactive content and Internet access, says the service, originally set for April 1996, will be switched on shortly after Labor Day. However, the initial number of customers served will be far fewer than in Time Warner's September launch.

"We prefer to go community by community and ensure as the service is turned on that it's done right the first time," TCI spokeswoman LaRae Marsik said.

If Fremont is a success, @Home will launch in Sunnyvale, California, Arlington Heights, Illinois, and Hartford, Connecticut by the end of the year. With the four communities' combined customers, TCI's upgraded broadband network will serve about 350,000 potential cable modem subscribers, according to Marsik, slightly more than what Time Warner is promising in Akron and Canton.

More broadband pins should appear in the national map by mid-1997, as Time Warner gears up to launch service in Portland, Maine, Binghamton, New York, and San Diego in the coming year.

Related stories:
Cable service to hit the road
Users stay stuck in Net traffic
Large cable companies back @Home
Grove casts doubt on cable modems
TCI attacks Pac Bell over cable trial
ADSL makes a name for itself in speed
UUNet tests Westell ADSL modem