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Users stay stuck in Net traffic

As he watches the little hourglass on his screen grind away while waiting to access a popular Web site, Jerry Bennington thinks of his new black Miata.

As he watches the little hourglass on his screen grind away while waiting to get into a popular Web site, Jerry Bennington thinks of his new black Miata. "It's not a fast car, but it's faster than 5 p.m. traffic. I just want the rest of the race course to go as fast as I can."

That's why the executive for cable giant Tele-Communications Incorporated (TCI) is so excited about the prospects of cable modems, the highly publicized miracle boxes that proponents say will enable people to zip around the Web at speeds as much as 1,000 faster than current technology allows. "This," Bennington said, "is truly an earth-shattering event."

Even before the number of Internet connections exploded last year, companies and cybernauts had crusaded for broadband communication based on inventions like cable modems, proselytizing the masses with visions of a digital Nirvana where people can get everything from 3D movies to free long distance phone calls at the click of a mouse. And small wonder: at stake is the very future of the Internet, with all its business and technology.

The question is, when do we get it?

The hype has left many PC users with the impression that super-fast cable modems for every home are just around the corner. But industry analysts and cable company officials say the devices may not become a household fixture for several years.

"The cable modem is not a direct threat to analog modem companies right now," said Gerry Kaufhold, vice president of ThorKa Research in Dayton, Ohio. "Within two years it'll be available, but they probably have nothing to worry about for the next five."

The obstacles to this grand new networking device were made clear this week when @Home, the most widely known Internet service provider in the pioneering cable modem field, announced that it was delaying the much-anticipated launch of its high-speed service by another six months, to the end of 1996.

While the company disclosed few specifics behind the delay, the announcement confirmed the suspicions of some analysts who thought @Home's plans were overly ambitious.

In addition to the inevitable technical glitches that the company is apparently encountering already, @Home must be prepared to handle an avalanche of customer orders and support calls, something that has caught services like America Online off guard in the past and cost millions of dollars in lost revenue. @Home will also have to mount aggressive marketing campaigns to steal users from other access providers that offer service for lower prices, albeit at slower speeds.

"If the Internet is the force behind the success of cable modems, this will be a very fickle market," Kaufhold said. "Consumers accustomed to shopping around for Internet service may be reluctant to buy a $500 cable modem if it restricts their ability to play one provider against another to get lower pricing."

But these challenges pale against the most daunting task before @Home and its competitors: building the infrastructure that connects the cable modems to the Internet.

At present, cable TV lines can send signals to the home but don't carry any out--which is what would have to happen for PC users to connect to the Internet, just as they now send and receive data through regular analog phone lines. If those outgoing lines are made available, the capacity to carry data jumps exponentially, yielding speeds hundreds of times greater than the 14.4- or 28.8-kpbs phone lines now used by most consumers online.

Building such a network is no mean feat. It's kind of like plugging together millions of extension cords, all with varying speeds and capacities that have to work together to maintain a steady current.

First, there's the connection to the home. In addition to the right modem, a consumer will need a box where the cable signals come into the house. That device will split the video signals from the data signals used for the computer connection. Then, the coaxial cables that carry those signals need to be upgraded at the regional or neighborhood level to allow PC users to send data out to the servers that in turn provide connections to the Internet.

TCI's Bennington calls this "the 'weakest link' phenomenon," alluding to the cable modem connections between increasingly fast desktops and ever-more powerful servers.

Some other cable-access Internet services are experimenting with existing infrastructure to address these problems. @Home, on the other hand, plans to upgrade TCI's lines to build a brand-new network from front to backbone that will provide faster service.

"It's not rocket science," said Bennington, who is working with CableLabs, a research consortium in Colorado that represents 85 percent of the nation's cable operators, to address standards and other issues. "It's blocking and tackling."

But the process is as labor-intensive as it is easy to understand. Although @Home insists that its service will be available sooner rather than later, the company shies away from any public estimates of customer growth or geographic availability outside of Sunnyvale, California, where about 20 trial users are now engaged in the first phase of testing.

Even if it makes good on its promise to begin home service in that Silicon Valley city by year's end, there is no guarantee that infrastructure and other basic necessities such as customer service will be adequately in place for wide expansion. Unless a consumer lives in an area with enough people clamoring for cable modems--not to mention a cable company willing to provide the requisite infrastructure and support system to maintain the service--high-speed access simply won't be an option.

And then there's still the issue of cost, which will come in higher than most service providers at an estimated $30 to $50 per month.

Still, there seems to be no shortage of demand from the legions of Net users frustrated with slow access speeds and promises of multimedia applications that they'll never be able to see with their current connections.

Kelly Schwager, a spokesperson for @Home, says she gets 50 to 75 inquiries a week from people across the country who want to sign up for her company's service--and it's not even on the market yet. "I had one guy ask if it's coming to Texas soon because he's moving and was trying to decide between two cities," Schwager recalled. "He said, 'If @Home is there, that's where I'll move.'"

He may end up staying put for a while.

Related stories:
@Home delays launch
3Com set to produce cable modems
Intel becomes cable modem impresario
Finding the best Internet access provider
Fast modems for every budget
No-wait Web surfing