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New Net access hot in Atlanta

Alternative Internet access technologies litter the Spring Comdex show floor and are a hot topic in panel discussions.

ATLANTA--Judging by all the complaints about jammed phone lines and dropped connections at hotels during this week's Spring Comdex show, most attendees still rely on dial-up access to reach the Internet.

But interest in new Net access options--cable, satellite, even electric utilities--is exploding despite concerns about price, reliability, and availability, according to conference attendees and participants.

Many such technologies are displayed on the showroom floor, and the trend is a hot topic in panel discussions.

"I'm a network administrator, and remote access has some real possibilities for us," said David York, senior network specialist at Systems & Computer Technology Corporation for Charleston County in South Carolina.

York explained that magistrates in remote parts of the South Carolina county could use remote Net access to tap records and files, a less costly approach than stringing ISDN lines into the area. In nations with no telecommunications infrastructure, wireless Net access is a good option for government agencies and businesses alike, others added.

Some of those interviewed today were attending a panel discussion dubbed "New Net Access Options," which looked at the pros and cons of emerging Net access technologies, as well as the trend itself. Many small business owners, some complaining about slow installation of ISDN lines, also participated.

Industry executives say demand for new Net access options is surging. Another reason, besides the well-documented ISDN marketing problems, is that PCs are becoming more powerful, but there's not enough bandwidth to take advantage of the higher computing speed. "You've got a Ferrari on the desktop and a dirt road leading up to it," said Tren Griffin, vice president for Teledesic.

Griffin outlined the company's plan to link users to the Net through low-orbiting satellites by the year 2002. In April, Teledesic announced that Boeing would invest $100 million for a ten percent stake in the company and act as the chief contractor for the company's satellite network for telephony and Net access. Teledesic's chief investors also include Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and McCaw Cellular founder Craig McCaw.

Teledesic's rollout was just one option being discussed. Another included wireless Net access through microwaves, such as that offered by WinStar in New York and elsewhere. The company uses licenses in the 38-GHz spectrum that can cost ten percent less than the standard telephone carrier rate for ISDN access, according to Matthew Howard, WinStar director of business and network development.

A third option afoot in wireless is former secretary of state Al Haig's effort, Virginia-based Sky Station International, to build a network of "Net platforms" just 100,000 feet above the Earth to send wireless signals.

Griffin is a fan of a wireless Net access service provided by Metricom. He uses it to telecommute while on the ferry in Washington state and as a second Net access source at home--without the cost of a second phone line.

On the cable modem side, participants were talking about the rapid expansion of companies such as @Home and Time Warner's Roadrunner. They pointed to studies that predict high-speed Net access over cable modems will reach more than 3 million subscribers by the turn of the century.

That's not to say there aren't drawbacks. The chief ones, as York put it: "price and reliability."

Cost of deployment is another hurdle. As Howard noted: "We spend a lot of time and money getting on people's rooftops" with antennas that are required for WinStar's service. Another attendee said it took a Road Runner maintenance team all day one recent Saturday to install a cable modem service for his friend in San Diego.

Added Teledesic's Griffin: "The problem with all of these technologies is that you don't have incremental deployment," potentially making the risk greater than the reward.

If all else fails, there's always the old standbys. When one attendee asked for the best option for Net access nowadays, the panel told him to try ISDN. Why? It's available.