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July 23, 1995

Cable may offer
lightning-fast Internet link

By Timothy C. Barmann

There's been a lot of hype about how terrific the Internet is. But most cyberspace cheerleaders fail to mention a major drawback to tapping into its rich resources.

It's slow.

Not the Internet itself. Data travels though its central arteries with amazing speed.

The bottleneck is your old-fashioned telephone line, which limits modem connections to 28,800 bits per second.

At that speed, the novelty of surfing the World Wide Web soon wears off as you twiddle your thumbs waiting for pictures to fill your screen. Surfing can feel more like swimming in a sea of molasses.

NYNEX offers one solution. They sell a service called ISDN - Integrated Services Digital Network - which allows your phone line to carry computer data up to four times the speed of an ordinary line.

But some Rhode Islanders may soon enjoy lightning-quick connections to the Internet through their cable television wire, at speeds up to 100 times faster than ISDN.

Cox Communications, which serves 45 percent of Rhode Island's cable customers, and Intelecom Data Systems, an East Greenwich-based Internet access provider, are collaborating to deliver Internet service through Cox's cable system.

Cox customers will be able to access the service by connecting their computers, through a special "cable modem," to their existing cable television line.

Warwick will be the first city to have cable Internet access, where "extensive testing and limited, preliminary service" will be available by the end of the year, said Craig Watson, vice-president and Rhode Island manager for Cox.

He said his company is spending more than $50 million to upgrade its cable network in Rhode Island to allow for more services, including Internet access.

Cox's new "hybrid fiber coaxial" network will allow two-way communication, which is essential for Internet access and other interactive services the company plans to offer, Watson said.

10 million bits per second

What's so revolutionary about cable delivery of Internet service is the speed it affords. Data can zip through the cable network at 10 million bits per second.

To give a frame of reference to how much faster cable is than ordinary telephone modems, think of the difference in speed between walking at a leisurely pace versus flying in a cross-county jet.

Opening up access to that kind of speed is bound to change the Internet from a novelty to a practical, everyday tool.

"It opens the barrier that is preventing people from having the widest view of the Internet and taking full advantage of its capabilities," said Andy Green, president of IDS, the company that will provide Cox's link to the Internet.

The cable service will make Web browsing nearly instantaneous. And it also will allow a host of features like live high-quality video and sound transmission, and the ability to access hard drives on remote computers as if they were part of your computer, Green said.

Cable Internet access may also make possible features that no one has even dreamed up.

"The types of functions you'll get out of it will be something you would expect to see out of a science-fiction novel or movie," Green said.

Party lines

IDS and Cox are already testing Internet delivery by cable with a 10- million-baud connection between the computer lab at Gorton Junior High School and the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.

But individual homes won't actually get their own 10-million-baud line. Instead, Green said, they will share a single connection with a whole neighborhood - 800 to 1,000 homes.

Such an arrangement will work, Green said, because individual users in the neighborhood will only use the resources of that single connection when they are actually requesting or sending data. If only a few people are accessing the Internet while you are, you probably won't even notice any decrease in speed.

But how slow will it be if you and all of your neighbors try to access the Internet at the same time?

"That's a question no one knows the answer to yet," said Michael Katz of Boston's Continental Cable, another company that's testing cable Internet access.

The 'final touches'

There are still a number of unanswered questions about how Cox's service will work in Rhode Island and when it will be widely available.

Depending on where you live, it may take some time for cable Internet access to be available in your area.

Cox is now putting the "final touches" on its network upgrade in Warwick, where the service will be first offered, Watson said. But some communities may have to wait until early 1997, when Cox's upgrade project is expected to be completed.

Another question is how much the new service will cost. Prices charged by cable companies in other parts of the country where Internet service is being offered or tested range from $10 to $125 a month on top of the regular cable bill.

In Cambridge, Mass., where Boston-based Continental Cablevision is testing Internet service, customers will have to pay about $100 a month when it's available, according to Continental's Katz. Customers also are charged a one-time $250 setup fee.

Cox's Watson said they haven't figured out how much Cox's Internet service will cost in Rhode Island, but he says he expects it to be lower than Continental Cablevision's rates.

Cox and IDS also haven't worked out whether they will sell customers the cable modem needed to connect their PC to the cable, which costs about $600, or rent it as Cox does with cable converters.

Besides Cox, another major cable provider in Rhode Island, Tele- Communications Inc., also is planning to offer Internet service.

In May, TCI announced the formation of a new company, called "@Home," which will be geared towards the home Internet access market, as its name implies.

But TCI won't say when its customers in Rhode Island will get to try it out. LaRae Schlichting, a spokeswoman at TCI headquarters in Englewood, Colo., said the company will not announce until next year which states will be the first to get Internet service.

You can keep up to date with TCI's plans for its @Home service by checking its home page on the World Wide Web at http://www.home.net/ or by e- mail at info@home.net.

Computer calendar

Thursday - The Ocean State Internet Society will meet from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Weaver Public Library on Grove Street in East Providence. The meeting has no formal speaker or structure, but organizers will facilitate discussions of "new developments in the online world." Attendees are encouraged to bring laptop computers with modems to explore some online sites. Cost: free. For more information, call OSIS at 435-8083, box 2, or see its Web site at http://www.ids.net/osis/.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.