Bypassing Bandwidth

If you've ever tried to download images off the Internet, you'll appreciate this new convergence of cable, satellites and info networks

The explosive growth of Internet has more than just computer junkies crying out for greater bandwidth to move data-heavy files. And information technology companies want to find a solution by moving away from the constraints of wires to direct satellite beams.

The problem is that even personal computers with seemingly infinite processing power are slowed down by a lack of bandwidth when they try to communicate with other computers or networks over traditional phone lines. Telephone lines are limited by the amount of information they can process at a time and large files -- especially images -- can take 15 minutes or more to download. Heavy computer users were the first to complain. But as more people try to access the Internet and computer applications move towards multimedia, bandwidth limitations will increasingly become a problem. But many firms are racing to introduce products that shorten the time it takes PC users to receive information.

Coupling the personal computer with existing broadband networks is the latest computer trend that cable companies, Internet service providers, and traditional infotech firms are marketing.

What's important is that companies are taking advantage of infrastructure that is already out there, said a White House official. "These ideas are important in getting us into thinking about an evolving National Information Infrastructure where all different technologies will converge."

Two firms have recently announced services that allow home computer users and small businesses to capture loads of information quickly and at a reasonable cost.

A SATELLITE LINK

Hughes Network Systems of Germantown, Md., will next year begin selling a 24-inch satellite dish for receiving data on a personal computer. The firm plans to market its product, called DirecPC, to business and computer enthusiasts as a faster way to receive software, documents, news, stock quotes, and digitized sound or video from a wide number of sources. Information from the Internet can also be transmitted.

DirecPC users equipped with a 9,600 baud modem would experience a 40-fold increase in speed in receiving material, said Tom McPherson, vice president and general manager of DirecPC.

IBM announced in October that it plans to use the Hughes satellite service as a way to distribute updates of software to corporate customers.

"The breakthrough we have in price and performance means we have a lot of applications," McPherson said.

Customers will have to spend $1,495 on the receive-only satellite dish, PC component board, software and wiring. Hughes says it will then charge $15.95 a month for the satellite data service. The firm expects to make the service available by April.

In the future, Hughes hopes to offer one satellite dish capable of receiving both its DirecTV programming signal and data services.

A CABLE CONNECTION

Available this month for some small Massachusetts companies and home computer users, is another service that couples PCs with the same coaxial cables that now deliver cable television programs. Performance Systems Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based firm that provides access to the Internet, has teamed up with the third-largest cable TV company in the United States, Continental Cablevision in Boston.

For a $250 set-up fee and $99 per month charge, Continental Cablevision customers can receive the vast array of information accessible over the Internet through their television. PSI supplies a special modem and cable box that allows any TV to receive information from the Internet.

Targeted towards the telecommuter or the small business user, the cable-PC union will relay information at a rate of 500 kilobits per second, which is much faster than over today's phone lines, said PSI spokesman Jim Bergmann.

The service will first be offered in eastern Massachusetts and then spread to other Continental service areas in the eastern United States, according to the firm. PSI officials said the company also expects to strike similar deals with other cable operators.

Because most computer users, especially those in the home, want to consume much more information than they generate, one-way communications -- like both of these services offer -- will satisfy most user needs. The Hughes and the PSI services provide broader bandwidth only for receiving information; users would still send data and information requests over their phone lines.

Both satellites and cable can technically provide two-way communication, but at this time it would be too expensive for the average user.

WHAT ABOUT ISDN?

It's no surprise that traditional analog phone lines can not transmit data as fast as new graphical, multimedia applications demand. But for years many experts thought that digital phone lines, which can transmit data more quickly, would be readily in place by now. But even after the RBOCs have invested $10 billion in ISDN, which stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, the technology is still considered a telecom loser by many industry observers. ISDN, which is an integrated voice and data switching standard that sends information over digital circuits, is beginning to catch on among businesses, but the service is still considered too expensive. Costs to install an ISDN line and the necessary equipment are about $500, then a monthly fee and a per minute charge for data usage is commonly assessed.

And at least one telecom analyst, Jerry Lucas of McLean, Va.-based TeleStrategies, Inc., predicts ISDN won't be able to compete against future two-way cable TV technologies.


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