How is it that the communications world is so bad at, well, communication? A while ago a PC Dealer journalist was briefed by a Motorola techie and was told, quite clearly, that 28.8Kbps was simply the fastest speed a modem could ever achieve. Well, there you have it. People wanting data to travel faster than that would have to go for ISDN and that was the end of it.
A few years before, maximum attainable speeds were pegged at about half that, and at one stage BT was telling us that 4.8Kbps was as fast as it would guarantee. This falls squarely into the realm of the people who insisted that trains would never work because of their unshakeable belief that man could not survive beyond 27 miles per hour.
Now this is all forgotten as everybody talks about 56Kbps on a standard modem. There has been controversy about it, and one modem manufacturer has published a white paper advising caution over just how efficient the new generation of modems will be. But as long as the software and configuration limitations are understood, it is true to say that modems will achieve half the speed of ISDN for considerably less than half the price within months. The question begged by this move is whether ISDN has a future. There are technologies ? Betamax video is a frequently-quoted example ? that for no apparent fault of their own miss their market opportunity, fade away and die. There are powerful arguments to suggest ISDN might be about to join them. Cable modems and frame relay have both entered the equation for users wanting that sort of performance from remote access applications, and neither appears about to go away.
At the core of the problem in the UK is the pricing. BT recently revamped its price structure; the standard startup cost is #199 for initial connection followed by a quarterly line rental of #133.75. Even for a business this is expensive, and not all ISDN product suppliers are satisfied.
Dilip Mistry, UK MD of Multitech, can offer devices to support ISDN or analogue standards. ?They have taken the price from one side and put it on the other,? he says. ?The technology is still attractive but the take-up will only be there when it becomes affordable.?
BT?s stock answer is that the costs involved are high and have to be passed on to the customer. This being the case, it is noticeable that the same costs don?t seem to apply in Germany, where digital lines have been much swifter to take off.
But interestingly, although they have a lot of ISDN out there, they don?t seem to know what it is for. According to BT, 75 to 80 per cent of calls made using the technology in France and Germany are ordinary voice calls, in which the benefits to the user are negligible. In the UK, 85 per cent of ISDN lines are used for data applications.
If pricing is one problem in the UK, then another downer ? and it?s a biggie ? is the issue of infrastructure. Accepting that there is no technical reason why ISDN should not be in place tomorrow, and further accepting that even once 56 is the standard for modem technology ISDN will outperform it by a factor of two, the PTTs ? and in particular BT ? will need a pretty powerful incentive to finally put it together.
ISDN not only requires terminal adaptors (TAs) at either end, it also needs the existing telephone line to be upgraded by faster technology. This costs money and as Mistry points out, there can be little incentive to spend in this way while the older technology is still pulling in a profit. Put it another way: if it ain?t broke, they won?t fix it.
BT remains bullish. ?In 98 per cent of the country, businesses can receive ISDN,? says a representative. ?You don?t have to rip everything out, you can just modify the exchange.?
Home users would have a rougher deal as their copper cabling is more likely to have deteriorated. In fact, BT freely admits that the service as it stands is best suited to business customers. It says one in every four new business lines is ISDN.
Something that might give resellers pause for thought is the take-up in the UK?s usual role model, the US. Historically we have followed whichever trend the US has set; we had superstores only a few years after they did, and the whole dealer/distributor model originated in the US.
Given the sheer geographical size, it might be expected that the US would lead the world in take-up of ISDN, but it does not. A 1996 survey by a computer magazine in the US showed that only seven per cent of respondents used ISDN for communications. Of those that did not, the rest were mostly interested in cable modems and satellite technology as alternatives, with only 7.2 per cent interested in ISDN; 69.2 per cent thought analogue modems would suit their needs.
It is worth bearing in mind that most commoditised technology has its roots in a substantial US user base. Product manufacturing might take place in disparate locations, but the economies of scale engendered by serving a market the size of America are considerable. It is unclear whether those same economies could be applied if the largest market were to be somewhere as small as the UK or even Germany.
Pricing has been among the reasons for the slow ramp-up in the US. Rick Thompson, VP for sales and marketing for Miami-based ISP Netrunner, believes the tariff-based system for charging was a severe disadvantage. ?Then a year or so ago the position changed as the Bell telcos flat-rated ISDN, followed by a marketing push including free connections from some quarters. It started to gain acceptance then,? he says .
?But with the ISPs and the bandwidth they needed, the Bell companies decided to put the toll rating straight back.?
At least, they put it halfway back. Crazily, the position now is that the ISPs pay a flat rate for ISDN calls, whereas callers into ISPs pay per minute. Thompson believes the new system will slow down the US market all over again.
Even so, there is no doubting that ISDN has its fans. Chris Miles, sales and marketing director of distributor Electronic Frontier, is a confirmed believer because of the software and applications that can be attached. ?For #99 you can plug a fax, modem, high-speed internet connection, voice, fax and a virtual secretary to read your email or re-route them. It?s not so much the technology as what we can put on the end of it.?
Predicting the next big thing used to be straightforward. People were excited about technology because, frankly, the technology was exciting. Product demos when they had voice, data and graphics travelling down the same line simultaneously were seriously buzzy, and we were assured things would hot up even more once ISDN arrived properly.
Then things changed; people got excited by what the technology could do rather than because of the technology itself. In light of this, and given current Net applications, logically, the conditions for ISDN have never been better.
But those conditions have thus far been hampered by BT?s price conditions. Add to that the established rival technologies starting to catch up in terms of performance, and laughing in the face of the price ? the cost differential between it and frame relay, for example, is well worth looking into for companies that simply want remote access facilities ? and it starts to look as though technically it runs remarkably quickly. But the perception is that commercially it has developed a noticeable limp.
There are counter-arguments. Not everyone agrees that the 56Kbps modem will work in the UK. It has yet to be tested, there are serious questions over its compatibility with X.2 and the speed is only achieved one way on a perfect, noise-free analogue line. And the standards issue has yet to be resolved ? most of the ISPs in the US use US Robotics modems, whereas the home market runs on Rockwell chipsets. The two are not inter-operable.
The cost model is in some doubt too. Research by Eicon shows that, taking into account the cost of connection and capital equipment amortised over three years, but also taking into account faster access times and no time-consuming handshaking process, a user with 20Mb of data per week to transfer for 48 weeks of the year would save an average of #150 per year. If the market can be fed this message and accepts it, ISDN?s time might finally be about to arrive. But thus far, it seems to be a minority view.
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