Phone Circuits To The Fast Lane

In 1984, the IBM PC AT was the hot new personal computer. A modem that could send and receive data at 2,400 bits per second was considered blazing fast. And the Baby Bells, just spun off from AT&T, attracted little attention when they sketched their plans for a high-speed communications future called the Integrated Services Digital Network.

After more than a decade of being derided as "It Still Does Nothing," ISDN's hour has come at last. Telecommuting, which can involve frequent access to E-mail and moving big, graphics-laden files, is probably the most important reason. Videoconferencing and Internet surfing have also helped create a market for fast digital communications.

MODEM OPERANDI. On the supply side, telephone companies are making the service cheaper and easier to get, and the starting price of the equipment needed to connect a computer to them has fallen from around $2,000 a year ago to less than $500 today. All that's needed now is one crucial element: Software updates that will make ISDN easy to use.

ISDN runs over the same wires as what the phone companies refer to as "Plain Old Telephone Service" (POTS), and the telephone installer follows the same procedures used to add a regular line to your home or office. But the similarity ends there. A POTS line can carry a single voice conversation or data at a maximum of 28,800 bits per second. An ISDN line provides up to 128,000 bits per second for voice, data, audio, or video in various combinations.

Transmission speed isn't the only benefit of an ISDN line. Experimenting with calls between my home and office, I found it took an average of 30 seconds to connect using a conventional modem. Using ISDN took me less than 5 seconds. And an ISDN terminal adapter, the equivalent of a modem, works without the modem's annoying bleeps and squawks.

A telecommuter with ISDN at both ends can work as though connected to an office network. The link will silently and swiftly connect and disconnect as needed.

So if ISDN is so great, why does Bellcore, the research arm of the regional Bell companies, estimate that there are a mere 400,000 of such circuits in use, compared with the hundreds of millions of POTS lines?

The biggest reason is that ISDN remains user-hostile. A customer ordering the service will be stopped cold when the telephone company asks how the line should be "provisioned," a technical issue that depends on the equipment being used. New terminal adapters, such as the $500 TA-210 from Motorola Inc., offer simplified setup, but they're still a lot more complicated to install than modems.

At least one phone company has a good idea of how to bridge the gap. Later this year, Ameritech Corp. will begin offering its Great Lakes area customers a $399 package that includes a Motorola terminal adapter, installation, technical support, and software developed by Bellcore to make ISDN easier to use. In Illinois, a line will cost less than $35 a month plus 5.2 cents per prime-time call. In Maryland, I pay Bell Atlantic Corp. $36 a month plus 5 cents per minute, compared with a flat $23 a month for a residential POTS line.

With Internet service providers beginning to offer ISDN, high-speed Net-surfing is the easiest way to experience the new digital service. But before ISDN can really hit the big time, it must

become easy to use with popular remote E-mail and network-access programs. Today, ISDN users have to iron out compatibility issues on their own. This is no minor problem, but it could be solved quickly once users and equipment manufacturers demand solutions from software publishers. Then ISDN can really take off.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.