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ISDN: It still does something

To naysayers, ISDN may always stand for "it still does nothing." But telecommunications and ISDN suppliers want to remind users that the technology is widely available right now while other high-bandwidth alternatives are still more theoretical than practical.

To naysayers, ISDN may always stand for "it still does nothing." Telephone companies offering this midband-speed connection to the Internet have been dogged by complaints about pricing, installation, congestion, and repairs.

But telecommunications and ISDN suppliers that met in Santa Clara, California, today wanted to remind users that the technology is widely available right now while other high-bandwidth alternatives such as cable modems and ADSL connections are still more theoretical than practical.

The two-day conference, ISDN World, is one of the largest of its kind. While attendees are upbeat publicly, they are likely to discuss privately some very real problems faced by the ISDN industry, such as an ongoing dispute over a pricing rate hike in California proposed by Pacific Bell. They also debated whether ISDN can compete with the faster technologies on the horizon.

The ISDN specification was hammered out in 1984 to allow for wide-bandwidth digital transmission using the public switched telephone network. Using ISDN, a phone call can transfer 64 kbps of digital data per second per channel, and most ISDN modems support the use of two channels for a total data transfer rate of 128 kbps.

This is considerably slower than ADSL technology, which also runs over regular phone lines but can deliver upload at speeds of 640 kbps and download at speeds of more than 6 mbps. Cable modems are even faster, transmitting data at up to 10 mbps. Since ADSL and cable modems are undeniably faster and are being tested in multiple trials across the country, technology vendors are under considerable pressure to prove that an ISDN installation is still worth the investment.

Reginald Best, vice president for 3Com's Access Products Division reaffirmed in his keynote speech that ISDN is safe from the threat of cable modems and ADSL.

"The bottom line is that we believe a lot of those technologies will coexist in the marketplace," he said.

The real fate of ISDN, he added, lies in the hands of telcos. "The challenges that ISDN faces are really about the telephone companies getting out of their own way and recognizing the scope of opportunity. They have the most to lose or gain."

The main problem with ISDN, Best declared, is "basically [that] telephone companies don't know how to market a high-technology product."

Everyone else at the conference will be fixated on the same question. "ISDN is still a valid technology. It has flexibility in terms of its voice, analog, and fax modem capabilities," said Jim McDonagh, a Pacific Bell Advanced Communications Network product manager who will sit on a panel about cable modems and XDSL technology which takes place tomorrow. "Cable is not even a blip in the short term. However, long-term heavy Internet users may migrate toward this as it become available."

ISDN vendors are giving tutorials and overviews of their services in an attempt to demystify ISDN. This is consistent with several new initiatives announced at the recent Comdex conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, for simplifying ISDN installation.