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The calm before the DSL storm: technology's new deal will bring constant connect.

There is an eerie moment of calm during a hurricane, the proverbial eye of the storm. It is a thing almost impossible to understand unless you've lived through it.

You may be prepared for the wind and the rain. You are never prepared for the violent cry of the storm. Imagine a wind so strong, so loud that it mocks down the trees on your property - and you watch them fall silently. Or at least he equivalent of silently, for as they crash on the ground they make no sound that can reach you above the sound of the wind.

Suddenly it is painfully, deafeningly quiet. The sun frequently comes out - what cloud cover could stand before such a storm? Many succumb to the irresistible urge to go out and check the damage.

The problem, of course, is that the storm has not passed. Even worse, because hurricanes are circular storms, the second half will come at you from the opposite direction. Homes, buildings and trees that withstood the first half of the storm because of a strong feature or a hill that blocked the wind will now be assaulted from the opposite direction.

More will fall.

That deceptive calm now blankets new media. The first big rush is over; the weekly news mags now sometimes let two or three weeks pass without a cyber-this or cyber-that cover.

Sure, PCs are flying off the shelves. Sure, the hottest sellers are the new class of under$1,000 multimedia machines - loaded versions from major manufacturers are now going for $800 and are expected to clip $500 in the next 12 to 15 months.

Let's face it, though. Even as PCs drop into the consumer electronics price range - the range occupied by television, stereo and video equipment - online pretty much still sucks. You've heard all the jokes: You can't take the PC into the bathroom with you in the morning. Everyone hates the World Wide Wait. Who wants to spend an hour booting up a PC in the morning and then clicking around?

Time to brace for the wind shift.

New media so far has been crippled by the lack of the digital equivalent of the interstate highway system. You can spend all you want on that Ferrari - there's a limit to how fast you're going to go on a goat path.

Eventually, of course, those goat paths were replaced with superhighways, and you can now go really fast on Washington's Beltway. Actually, you can go really, really fast on the Long Island Expressway. Would you believe you can often do the speed limit on the Santa Monica Freeway?

Perhaps this was a bad example.

Regardless, the interstate highway system was built, and broadband access is on its way to your home. There are a bunch of technologies including cable modems and satellite wireless that have been kicking around the development pipeline for a couple of years and now are rolling out.

The real news, though, is a little-heralded geek pronouncement made in January. A new consortium formed by Microsoft, Compaq and the Regional Bell Operating Companies and the rest of the usual computer company suspects agreed on a standard for a new Digital Subscriber Line format.

DSL is another technology that has been kicking around the development pipeline, but has been really expensive, required a phone tech to stop by your house and install a bunch of stuff, and required the phone companies to upgrade equipment. That upgrade has proven problematic since phone companies have been known to move at a pace that makes glaciers appear to be speed demons.

Take Integrated Subscriber Digital Network service, for instance. It promised to be a blindingly fast service when it was announced. More than a decade later, it's only twice as fast as a high-speed modem - for roughly 25 times the monthly cost. This explains why the geeks say ISDN stands for I Still Don't Need it.

But the new DSL requires only a DSL modem, which should be available for under $200 by the end of the year. U.S. West has announced it will roll out the service in 14 states this year. Bell Atlantic has a pilot program already under way in northern Virginia. And the other Bells are promising wide rollout in '98 and '99.

Here's why DSL is important. For an estimated $50 a month - about what most people currently pay for their Internet service plus basic telephone - you'll get a line that offers telephone service plus one megabyte per second of data. Your phone will work the same way it does now.

OK, so it's fast and geeky. But here's why you should care. DSL uses separate signals for voice and data. That allows a DSL connection to be on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, whether or not you are using the phone.

Comes now the revolution.

Currently, users of online news generally have slow connections that must be initiated by the user. A DSL connection, on the other hand, will allow better access to current online products such as Web sites, enable push technologies to become something more than a curiosity, and enhance the advent of new technologies. With an always-on connection, for example, newspapers could "publish" their products to your computer at, say, 6 a.m. so it is waiting for you when you get up.

The Web is a print design transplanted to a new medium. Broadband will allow new media to start developing its own designs.

The calm is ending. The wind is shifting.

Brace yourself.

RELATED ARTICLE: ... In a blink, world changed again

Microsoft, TV test high-speed delivery

On Feb. 17, after the main article was written, Microsoft announced that it is working with 12 broadcasters and cable programmers in a series of nationwide trials that will use a portion of the regular television signal to deliver data.

The data is packed into a part of the television signal known as the Vertical Blanking Interval. The technology works on both broadcast and cable television, and reportedly delivers in the neighborhood of a megabyte per second throughput over broadcast and about eight times that over cable networks.

Microsoft[R] Windows[R] 98 broadcast-enabled PCs will be capable of receiving and displaying this data as will current Web TV Plus boxes with a free WebTV Plus software upgrade scheduled to be available later this year.

Television broadcasters and cable programmers involved in the trials include: Capitol Broadcasting Co. Inc., Citytv, Cox Broadcasting, The E.W. Scripps Co., Guthy-Renker, KCTS-PBS, MuchMusic, New England Cable News, Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Paramount Stations Group, Sinclair (SBGI), and WFLA-TV.) Like DSL, this technology offers a high-speed connection over existing infrastructure 24-hours a day, seven days a week. This technology is even better in that it offers such performance over a wireless connection.

There are more details on this technology on the Microsoft Web site at - Christopher J. Feola

Christopher J. Feola is the director of the Media Center at the American Press Institute. You can reach him at
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Title Annotation:Digital Subscriber Line
Author:Feola, Christopher J.
Publication:The Quill
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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