dreaming about more bandwidth – ISDN (1998)

There seems no sense in dreaming if faster ways of connecting to the Internet will arrive tomorrow. Trials of ASDL, the 6Mbits per second technology, are underway but there is sleepy progress in moving it to a product. Add to this the fact that after a year of promises modem technology is still to reach its 56K download speed and there’s enough to make a heatseeker bash the pillow.
Given today’s limbo, British Telecom’s offer of ISDN at get real prices is set to do well. Called Home Highway and Business Highway, it splits a regular phone line into two pairs of analogue and digital sockets with the result that any two can work at the same time. You can phone while sending a fax or surfing the Internet at speed or you can instead use both of the two digital data channels to give one line with 128 kbits per second. The system gives you three phone numbers – two for your analogue lines and an extra one for the digital pair. Just a bit of wizardry, some remote access software say, and you could use the digital number to dial into a computer at a remote location to upload some files. With normal phone call tariffs, an install outlay of £100 and £70 for an ISDN card, homes and small businesses are an easy target. For those who need a second line for the Internet anyway, the rise in rental charge, at three times the cost of a single line, might seem less steep.

BT Highway uses technology supplied by Marconi Communications and Ericsson and operates over existing telephone lines. It is called Euro-ISDN or ISDN2e, which enhances standard ISDN in offering the mix of analogue and digital that people need to migrate to digital. Previously if you wanted to put existing phones on the same line you needed a ‘terminal adapter’ with analogue voice sockets. You would have lost the use of services like ‘call minder’ or ‘ring back when free’ with straight ISDN – here they work provided that you are not using both lines as digital. You would have needed a new phone number too. While letting you keep your number in most cases, BT’s Euro-ISDN, takes shape as an additional powered wall box with a built-in mix of outlets which can be split or sent round the building as needs demand.

ISDN cards are like terminal adapters but slot into a PCI or ISA slot inside the computer. As with a modem, it’s a tidier arrangement though the card might not have analogue sockets. Internal or external, they get additional functionality from software. For example, the Teles.So PCI card from Electronic Frontier comes bundled with a package that allows you to fax, send or receive files from most Windows applications. There’s an answering machine that stores messages on the hard disc and a video conferencing module that if you have a Web cam, lets you make video phone calls to others with H320 standard gear. And, for those who find picking up the phone a chore, there is phone dialler and speakerphone software that works though a mike and speakers on the sound card. The basic management of ISDN cards is through Windows dial-up networking – you may find settings that let you bond two 64K ISDN lines to give a faster 128K connection, as well as a way to change your Internet Service Providers telephone number to one that supports or ISDN. Note that some providers charge a bit more for the privilege and especially to those on business tariffs.

Other settings need checking to save on call costs. Windows has been known to assume you are on a network and so try to collect mail every ten minutes, and send each message as soon as it’s written. Each trip is a phone call – easily missed by the fact that calling your Internet Service Provider though an ISDN line will achieve a connection in a few ticks as opposed to the usual 30-45 seconds. In other words, ISDN connections start and stop so fast they can be transparent.

Those with a studio network, say a few machines connected with Ethernet cards can go further by connecting through a router. These are configurable devices that join all machines via an Ethernet cable and can give everyone Internet access through a single account. Add mail server software and you could batch up outgoing mail, and direct incoming mail to the right persons. But then, at a cost of around £500, the smaller business might do better shouting across the room.

BT say they’ve been connecting 20,000 ISDN lines each month – and that is under the old regime of tariffs that favour those with high call traffic. ‘Highway’ inevitably will up the figures and bring us closer to countries like Germany where ISDN is cheap, passe and no longer a dream.

Electronic Frontier and Teles ISDN hardware: www.teles.co.Uk

Roger Frost 1998

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