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ISDN companies told to shape up

The promise of faster Net access hasn't killed ISDN, but the threat has its backers boning up on Marketing 101.

SAN DIEGO--The promise of faster Net access hasn't killed ISDN, but the threat has its backers boning up on Marketing 101.

During his keynote speech at ISDN World here, Bernie Schneider, Ascend Communications' vice president of strategic business development, told ISDN product manufacturers and access providers that they have to improve customer service and cut costs to survive.

"Consumer demand is still lagging," Schneider said to the crowd last night. "We go through all this stuff to create products and build demand--then we can't fill the orders."

Unlike new or nascent alternatives such as cable Net access, 56-kbps modems, and some xDSL technologies, ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) has never been the darling of analysts, Schneider acknowledged. In fact, ISDN has a reputation for inconsistency in pricing as well as long waits and headaches in its installation. The result of this unappealing concoction has been a difficulty in positioning itself in the market.

Still, the ISDN customer base is growing thanks to the Internet, Schneider said. "The Net is eating into traditional ad dollars, e-commerce is taking off, and it is the cheapest global network. Power Internet users will gravitate toward ISDN."

An ISDN pipeline consists of two digital phone lines that allow Net connections at up to 128 kbps. To be a success, ISDN equipment and monthly access rates must come down in price, Schneider added. Moreover, installation should only take between 10 and 14 days across the industry.

But ISDN is ready to beat back the competition of cable Net access, which is being quickly deployed by companies like @Home and Time Warner's Road Runner. "Cable companies have a big consumer confidence problem," Schneider said.

Although cable companies promise to make the Net look like television, the ISDN industry is targeting telecommuters who need to manage voice calls and remain online at the same time.

Schneider said ISDN should position itself between 56-kbps modems and the xDSL and cable markets in order to play off the weaknesses of those technologies.

For example, the main 56-kbps modem technologies by U.S. Robotics and Rockwell-Lucent don't use the same standards, which forces customers to find an Internet service provider that supports their modem.

Even if consumers buy 56 kbps, that could be a good thing for ISDN. "We should view 56-kbps modems as a drug," Schneider said. "Get them addicted to faster speeds, and they're going to want to move up to ISDN."