ways of connecting to the net (1998)

Granny used to say that if there are lots of ways to do the same thing, then you can be sure that there’s no best way. If she was right, bless her, then the lots of ways of connecting to the Internet including modems, TV, and radio add up to plenty enough no best ways.

Not that things aren’t moving forward at pace that would have stunned her. Even the humble modem and the common people’s route to the Internet – gained a morale boost as the ITU standards committee endorsed 56Kbps technology in the shape of ‘v.pcm’. Before now consumers have had to gamble between the mutually incompatible 3Com ‘x2’ modems and Rockwell/Lucent K56Flex modems. At the same time, Internet services have offered lines to connect based on one, both or deferred deciding on either. The v.pcm standard, which allows users to download at 56K and upload at 33K ensures the two modem systems are interoperable. The decision is expected to lighten the brake on modem sales and the race to deliver ‘v.pcm’ modems has begun. Those who bought systems a while back will want to log on to the manufacturer’s web site to check if they need a software upgrade.

With modems sales running at around 50 million units a year, most users would seem to have already found the best way of getting connected. Indeed for those outside a business needing reliable, multi-user access to the ‘net, the phone lines are today’s best way and could remain so into the millennium. Not even British Telecom’s improved tariffs on ISDN2e, the current European standard with its fast connecting and twin-64K channels could seriously win domestic converts.

The near future competition is made of some intriguing technologies. There is great hope for the ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) modem which uses standard copper wire telephone lines. The data rates here approach 6Mbits/second, a level which makes not just Internet but also video-phones and video on demand into exciting prospects. Then there are the scarce offerings of the cable companies, consisting of ersatz ISDN or cable modems with a rich 10Mbits one-way and 750K back. Progress on this seems to be stymied by the still high cost of hardware, a chaotic lack of interoperability and even a lack of confidence in their core business beside satellite broadcast. In fairness some also point to the weaknesses in the switching gear that connects to the Internet backbone and is largely in the hands of the Internet service providers.

What cannot fail to excite are the technologies that short circuit the phone lines. Satellite dish based systems are appearing that almost do that – data from space can be beamed to a card equipped PC at around 400Kbits, though it needs a phone line back to the service for you to interact.

Beside this is cellular radio, which after a hefty outlay for radio modems and antennae, offers a running close to free for an impressive 2 to 10 Mbits of data. Intercast is yet another such, not only by using TV’s vertical blanking interval, and having a low hardware cost (£20-£40) but by having the backing of big names in PCs and entertainment. Both of these look like being examples to watch.

The technology to earn the most guffaws to date is the proposal to offer Internet through the electrify mains supply. A telecom – utility company tie up between Nortel and Norweb in the U.K. will run fibre-optic Internet lines to electricity sub stations and then deliver a not to be laughed at 1Mbit connection to a card equipped PC. It’s also rumoured that this may be a neat way to read the consumer meter, as well as add a meter for Internet usage.

So we’re in a limbo which gives us time to take stock and use some good old-fashioned wisdom. One idea is to look at the benchmarks and appreciate that lots of people are measuring connection speeds with tail winds, for example those 56K modems only approach the 56K mark, and a connection at between 45K-50K is common at present. Another is that the system depends on the fact that not all of us want our 10Mbits all at the same time. (By Roger Frost 1998)

Contact: Intercast www.intercast.com Modems: 3COM www.usr.com , Motorola www.mot.com Rockwell www.rockwell.com Multitech www.multitech.com ATML (ASDL) www.atml.co.uk Nortel www.nt.com

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