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November 12, 1995

ISDN takes the
snooze out of the Internet

By Timothy C. Barmann

Let's face it. Surfing the Internet's World Wide Web requires great patience. Sampling interesting Web sites laden with pictures and sounds, even with the fastest modems, is slow.

But there is a better way.

For nearly two years, NYNEX has been offering a service in Rhode Island that can convert your ordinary phone line into a digital conduit that's almost 4 1/2 times faster than the speediest modems.

It's called ISDN -- Integrated Services Digital Network. In a nutshell, it allows digital information to flow on old-fashioned copper telephone wires using the existing wiring in your home or business. You can even send data and talk on an ISDN line simultaneously.

While data can travel over conventional phone lines at about 28.8 Kbps, ISDN technology allows the same line to transmit data up to 128 Kbps. That speed makes possible things like telecommuting and video conferencing. And it's almost the perfect solution for us thumb-twiddling Internet surfers.


In Rhode Island, as in many other states, ISDN is relatively expensive. There are a host of fees associated with the service, which may be pushing it out of the reach of most home users.

NYNEX says it has only about 150 to 200 ISDN lines going into people's homes in all of New England, a tiny fraction of the nearly 19,000 ISDN lines the company has sold in the region, almost all to businesses.

There are only a handful of ISDN customers in Rhode Island who use it to connect to the Internet, according to local Internet providers.

NYNEX charges about $36 a month for a residential ISDN line and $44 for a business line in Rhode Island. If you are unlucky enough to live in one of several outlying communities that doesn't have ``local'' ISDN, you can probably still get it, but at a cost of $39 more a month for a ``virtual'' ISDN hook-up.

There is also a one-time installation fee of about $130. If you need virtual ISDN, you'll pay $205 to install it.

That's not all. There are also ``usage charges'' -- about $1 an hour -- levied while your computer is on an ISDN connection, even if it's a local call. (Local voice calls remain free.)

``You have to be crazy to pay for ISDN in NYNEX-land,'' said Michael S. Bilow, a Cranston computer consultant who has been monitoring ISDN pricing by NYNEX and by the other regional Bell telephone companies.

How NYNEX compares

Bilow has found that prices vary widely for ISDN service throughout the country. In California, for example, Pacific Bell is actively promoting the digital service and is selling it at an attractive price. There, ISDN is thriving.

PacBell has more than 46,000 customers using ISDN in California, according to Mary Hancock, a company spokeswoman. More than 2,500 of those have ISDN lines in their homes, she said.

PacBell charges about $25 a month for residential ISDN, which is at least $11 a month less than NYNEX. There are usage charges, as well, but only during business hours. After 5 p.m. and on weekends, there are no additional charges for making local connections. NYNEX usage charges are in effect 24 hours.

PacBell will waive the $125 installation fee if a customer agrees to keep the line for two years. And unlike NYNEX, the company doesn't charge for ``virtual'' ISDN.

``We think it would be counterproductive to charge (customers) a lot of money to get them hooked up in this technology,'' said Hancock of PacBell.

David Angell, an Arlington, Mass., author and consultant, literally wrote the book on this digital technology, ISDN for Dummies. Angell recently moved East from California, and has first-hand experience with both Pacific Bell and NYNEX.

``PacBell is one of the most aggressive of the (regional telephone companies) in providing ISDN connections at affordable prices,'' he writes in the book, published in June.

``In the case of NYNEX,'' he writes, ``it appears that top management doesn't support ISDN.''

I called Angell to ask him what he found wrong with NYNEX's ISDN service.

``They've made it very difficult to order it,'' he said. ``It's much more of a headache than it should be.''

He said some of the NYNEX representatives aren't well-informed about ISDN. And they are so ``backlogged in a bureaucracy'' that it took about six weeks of calling NYNEX ``every other day'' before his line was installed.

By contrast, it took two weeks to get an ISDN line from PacBell last year, he said.

`The many factors ...'

What does NYNEX say about these complaints?

``Admittedly, sometimes we know we haven't always met customers' expectations,'' said Donald Lane, director of product management for NYNEX New England, in a phone interview. He said the company is trying to address those issues.

``We're going through training in all the organizations that have anything to do with ISDN, from sales to installation and maintenance,'' he said.

NYNEX, Lane said, is working to ``restructure'' its ISDN service to ``make it simpler for customers to understand, make it easier to order and easier to provision,'' -- that is, install and maintain.

About pricing, he said ``I think our ISDN rates are fairly reasonable for what you get.''

He pointed out that in most cases, the cost of ISDN is less than what you pay for two telephone lines which can do far less.

He said it's difficult to compare prices for ISDN between companies.

``You can't look at NYNEX, Bell South or PacBell, and say one regional company is not priced as well as another, because of the many factors that go into how rates are set.''

One of those factors, Lane said, is the ``regulatory environment'' the telephone company operates in.

He said that in Tennessee, for example, ``they are practically giving (ISDN) away.'' That's because Bell South had an ``over-earnings situation'' -- they earned more money than regulators allowed them to. They were forced to either give all its customers a rebate or offer another product, like ISDN, at cost or lower than cost.

NYNEX customers who live in outlying areas are charged more for ISDN service, Lane said, because those charges reflect the phone company's own cost for providing ``virtual'' ISDN service.

He said most Rhode Island NYNEX customers -- some 78 percent -- wouldn't have to pay that charge now anyway for ISDN, and by the end of 1996, it will probably be eliminated for everyone.

By then, Lane said, Nynex will likely re-examine its ISDN rate structure and may implement some discount plans.

But Bilow, the Cranston computer consultant, would like to see these rate changes sooner than later. He thinks that lower ISDN prices would have a positive economic impact for the state.

And it would have personal benefits as well.

Would he get ISDN if the rates were the same as PacBell's?


Computer calendar

November 14 -- The Paradox Users Forum of Rhode Island, a sub-group of the Boston Computer Society, will have a sneak preview by Borland of its Paradox 7.0 software, which is the new version for Windows 95. The meeting, which is free, is at 7 p.m. at the Roger Williams University School of Law, Appellate Room 283 in Bristol. Doors open at 6:30. For more information, contact Everett Lewis by e-mail at ecl@loa.com. The Paradox Users Forum meets the 2nd Tuesday each month at Roger Williams University.

November 16 -- The Ocean State Free-Net Steering Committee will hold its monthly meeting at WSBE-TV (Channel 36), 50 Park Lane, Providence, from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. The meetings are usually held the third Thursday of the month at the station and are open to the public. Call the Ocean State Free-Net help desk at 277-2728, ext. 500, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays for more information.

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.