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For Net Surfers Who Want To Power Up Now

Science & Technology: TELECOMMUNICATIONS


Crawling around the World Wide Web with a 14.4-kilobit-per-second modem can seem like cruising the freeway on a tricycle. You can check out nifty sites and sounds, all right, provided you haven't died of boredom first. Graduating to a state-of-the-art--and at $200, affordable--28.8-kbps modem surely helps, but you still may get the feeling that the Internet is passing you by.

Luckily, help is on the way for those with a need for speed. Cable modems will start to turn up in a few markets this year, and manufacturers are revving up speeds on conventional modems to 33.6 kbps. But for Web surfers who crave swift and immediate access to the Internet, the best bet may be via ISDN, or integrated services digital network. Data can be zipped through these digital lines at speeds of up to 128,000 bits per second--provided you have gear that can "bond" two separate channels of 64,000 bps--or roughly four times faster than a 28.8-kbps modem.

While ISDN has existed for well over a decade, only recently have the Baby Bells pushed the service in a big way. According to Forrester Research Inc., there will be 1.5 million residential ISDN lines used for online access in 1996, up from 250,000 last year.

HOOKUP HEADACHES. But ISDN could cause you installation migraines. There are several ways to implement ISDN, so you will have to install hardware that meshes with the type of service offered by your phone company. The Bells and equipment makers have recently agreed to market four standard ISDN configurations. But "ISDN is not quite plug-and-play yet," says Vern Mackall, a senior analyst at Northern Business Information, a unit of BUSINESS WEEK's parent, The McGraw-Hill Companies. For starters, you will need a compatible modem-like device known as a terminal adapter, sold by the likes of Motorola Inc. and U.S. Robotics Corp., as well as a black box that connects to the phone company called an NT1, or network termination device.

Moreover, you typically will have to fork over a one-time installation fee to your phone company, and customers who live far away from the central office switch may pay more. U S West Inc. charges $110 if you live within 18,000 feet of the central office and an additional $100 if you live farther out. Southwestern Bell Corp. normally charges from $400 to $485 to install ISDN but will waive the fee for anyone who agrees to keep the service at least two years.

Monthly rates vary widely and may involve a per-minute charge. In Missouri, Southwestern Bell has a plan through which ISDN customers pay $45.50 per month for 10 hours of usage, plus 4 cents per minute thereafter. A different Southwestern package costs $63.50 per month and includes 80 hours of usage, after which it's 2 cents per minute. Costs vary by state: Both U S West and Pacific Bell took some heat recently over proposed rate hikes in certain markets. Pacific Bell wants to charge residential subscribers who have been paying for unmetered ISDN evening service an hourly rate during the weekend--to prevent them from dialing up an ISDN line on Friday night and staying connected until Monday morning.

Beyond cost worries, if you can't get ISDN to work properly, you might not know where to turn. Your phone company may blame the modem maker, who in turn may blame the Internet access provider (though not all Net providers or online services can handle ISDN). To smooth the way, many phone companies have formed alliances with equipment partners. Yet despite the hassles, once you've cruised cyberspace in the fast lane, there may be no slowing down.By Edward C. Baig in New YorkReturn to top


What You'll Need For Speed

Typical ISDN setup


MONTHLY FEE $21 to $60

CONNECTION GEAR $300 to $650


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