TUCoPS :: Truly Miscellaneous :: isdn_tec.txt

ISDN Technology - an abstract for the non-techie

Telephone Service That Rings of the Future 
By Joshua Quittner. STAFF WRITER Newsday 
(Copyright 1992 by Newsday,Inc. Reprinted and posted by permission)

     TO JOHN PERRY BARLOW, a point man for the computer culture, it's 
the next step in the "Great Work. The physical wiring of collective 
human consciousness--the idea of connecting every mind to every other 
mind in fullduplex broadband."
      To Ohio Bell, it's a way for customers to have up to nine 
telephone numbers--some for specific friends, some for the bill 
collectors--for the price of one.
     This technological Rorschach test is called Integrated Services 
Digital Network. And not since the invention of television have so many 
people looked at one thing and interpreted it in so many different ways.
     Technically, ISDN refers to an architecture--the software, 
hardware and protocols needed to deliver a mix of voice, video and data 
over a digital telephone network. This is important because it is a way 
of squeezing every bit of capacity out of the twisted pair of copper 
wires that the local telephone company runs into your house, bringing 
the kind of services that are usually associated with more expensive 
fiber optic cables.
      When Barbara Bush videoconferenced from the White House with 
children at a Baltimore hospital at Christmas, she was using an ISDN 
connection. When a group of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory scientists 
work at home, ISDN enables them to use their personal computers, without 
a modem, to tap into the lab network and get a data connection 27 times 
faster than normal. The Rochester Telephone Co. and AT&T recently 
completed an ISDN experiment in which phone company employees used ISDN 
to telecommute from their homes.
     With the lifting of restrictions that barred local telephone 
companies from providing information services, the Baby Bells are 
looking for ways of getting into the information business. Fiber optic 
cable, the hair-thin strands of glass that convey signals at the speed 
of light, is considered the ultimate way to transmit information 
services, both for its speed and high capacity. But the cost of 
deploying fiber has stalled it at curbside; telephone companies estimate 
it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars to extend it into homes.
     By using the existing copper wires that connect homes to lo
cal telephone companies, ISDN could be a far cheaper, more quickly 
available alternative, a "ramping up technology," to fiber, said Barlow. 
With software developer Mitchell Kapor, who is famous for the business 
spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3, Barlow founded the Cambridge, Mass.-
based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a public interest group dedicated 
to defining and promoting the rights of computer users. The organization 
is lobbying for ISDN as the medium for an easy-to-access, national 
public network of computer users.
     Will ISDN stay where it is, mostly with businesses, or will it make 
the connection to people's homes? The answer depends on whom you ask.
     "I think we're at a critical period in the deployment of ISDN 
because up until now, it has not been possible to make an ISDN telephone 
call from the service area of one phone company to another," said Marvin 
Sirbu, a telecommunications expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon 
University in Pittsburgh. Sirbu said that ISDN gained momentum recently 
with industrywide agreements that created standards for equipment makers 
and service providers to interconnect nationally. That should occur by 
the end of 1992. It means that the 300 or so isolated ISDN islands will 
be able to talk to each other and the technology is almost certain to 
proliferate, at least between businesses, he said.
      BUT SIRBU discounted the EFF's notion of a public national network 
based on ISDN and said it was wrong to expect the telephone companies to 
deploy it for information services. 
     "I have followed the trials and tribulations of home information 
services for more than 10 years," he said. "Everybody keeps saying when 
the technology gets cheaper it will be a big success or when the 
technology gets better it will be a big success. But I haven't seen any 
applications that would make this a big success in the home. The issues 
here are marketing issues and finding out what the right product is that 
someone wants at home."
      Commercial interest in ISDN seemed to peak in 1986, when 
McDonald's Corp. was the first business to try it out. (Two executives, 
two miles apart, spoke on the phone while looking at video images of 
each other and while transmitting a graphic of the Golden Arches onto 
their computer screens.) Though the technology spread to the rest of 
corporate and high-tech America, it did so slowly; uses were pretty much 
limited to a kind of advanced Caller ID option.
     For instance, if you call your credit card company's 800 number 
from home, chances are your name and records will pop up automatically--
before you even identify yourself--on the computer screen of the 
customer service rep as he takes your call. With ISDN, a company can 
also tell if you called, were put on hold and hung up without ever 
speaking to a person; if they want to, they can call you back. It also 
allows them to note in their database that you speak only Spanish and 
automatically route you to a bilingual operator.
     The anticipated--and current uses--for ISDN run from the poetic 
to the prosaic.
     On the poetic end of the spectrum is the Electronic Frontier, which 
is pushing ISDN as the ideal platform for what has beendubbed the 
National Public Network. Barlow said that that network would carry, in 
addition to normal telephone calls, multimedia electronic mail, in which 
users could send a mixture of voice and video; personal faxes, software, 
games "and other media not yet imagined." The network, in his view, 
would be the ultimate expression of "global free speech," giving all 
users an unprecedented chance to interact.
     "We believe that ISDN, whatever its limitations, is rapid enough to 
jump start the greatest free market the world has ever known," said 
     ISDN can deliver data 27 times faster than a 2400-baud modem, the 
telephone-computer interface that most PC users use. It does this 
digitally, by creating two 64-kilobit-a-second channels that can be used 
for voice or data, and one 16-kilobit-a-second channel, on your phone 
line. With developing data-
compression techniques, users could get a combination of voice, 
pictures, music and video. "Multimedia postcards," as Kapor put it.      
"Today, it's the case that you can do very high-quality picture phones 
over ISDN at very, very good quality," he said. "Compression techniques 
are continuing to evolve so it's reasonable to expect that we will have 
VHS-level quality" over copper wires.
     But, while more than 60 percent of the country will be ISDNready 
within two years, Kapor, Barlow and others worry that the telephone 
companies will do little with it for residential users, aside from 
offering their business customers--where most of the money is for phone 
companies--some ISDN services.
      "Telco mindset was developed in an era of highly centralized 
networks in which it took a decade of court battles to give you the 
right to attach a suction cup to your telephone," said Kapor. "Computer 
industry mindset, especially PCs, was born in garages and attics where 
teenagers, kids, and outsiders invented the Apple II and Lotus 1-2-3." 
So Kapor and the EFF has been trying to line up the support of computer 
and software manufacturers, among others, to lobby in Congress and among 
the public utility commissions state by state, for a more directed and 
speedy deployment of ISDN.
     Currently, there are some 300 ISDN "islands," each centered around 
discrete ISDN-equipped phone switches. No one knows exactly how many 
there are, nor how many users they serve, though the vast majority are 
dedicated telephone lines that run from telephone company switches to 
specific businesses.
      Though users within each island can interact using ISDN, they can 
not interact between islands because the companies that manufacture ISDN 
switches used different standards, and because there was no standard 
interface between the ISDN that a local telephone company uses, and the 
ISDN that a long-distance carrier uses.
     However, standards by Bellcore, the research arm of the Baby Bells, 
should bring all the switches into conformity by the fall of 1992.
     Stan Kluz, an ISDN expert at Lawrence Livermore, recently hooked 
the first group of ISDN users off site, into the laboratory's computer 
network. Kluz said that through this arrangement, 12 scientists who live 
near the University of California at Berkeley can use their computers at 
home, and have access to data at 64 kilobits a second.
     With speeds that fast, the scientists can manipulate huge amounts 
of data and see their problems displayed in three dimensional graphics 
on their home computers.
      Kluz sees the future of telecommunications and it is ISDN. He says 
that videoconferencing on all ISDN-equipped computers at Lawrence 
Livermore will be available soon; with nationwide interconnection 
agreements, he hopes to see "distance learning" in which a class in, 
say, nuclear physics, could be videoconferenced at the Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology to the computer of a Lawrence Livermore 
scientist, who can take part in the class. 
     But Kluz, who also serves as president of the California ISDN Users 
Group, echoed Kapor and said that the phone companies aren't moving fast 
enough to create demand for the service. "They're not marketing it 
well," he said.
      NYNEX spokesman Joe Gagen--as well as virtually everyone else 
interviewed for this story--said residential ISDN is a classic chicken 
and egg problem. In order for people to want it, there have to be 
services. But information service providers won't proliferate until 
there's a demand. Gagen said that residential demand will grow as people 
become exposed to ISDN at work.
     "It's not going to happen overnight," said Colin Beasley, staff 
director of network planning at NYNEX. "My guess is that from an 
affordability and deployment point of view, you're probably talking 
about 1994-1995 before you'll see broad penetration into the [New York] 
residence market."
     Telephone Service That Rings of the Future      ISDN has already 
penetrated New Albany, Ohio, where 16 ISDNaccessible homes have been 
built. The country-club-style development (median house price, $700,000) 
surrounds a Jack Nicklausdesigned golf course and, its developers say, 
is the first commercial application of residential ISDN.
      Neil Toeppe of Ohio Bell Telephone Co. said homeowners have the 
option of giving out up to nine telephone numbers from an existing 
telephone line, each with a different function. For instance, the number 
listed in a phone book could be programmed to run into an answering 
machine; a second line can be given out to friends, and ring only on 
telephones in designated rooms; a third number could be for the 
children's phone and it could divert to voice mail after 7:30 p.m.
     Within a year or so, residents will be able to have the local 
utility company monitor their thermostats, using the 16 kilobit data 
channel. That will let homeowners subscribe to a kind of power sharing 
agreement under which the power company will virtually control the 
thermostat in exchange for discounted rates. Other features will also be 
available--as soon as someone figures out what they are.
     josh quittner
     voice: 1.800.544.5410 (2806 at tone)

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