Companies compete to deliver fast Internet

Phone and cable operators market high speed Internet

Posted: Tuesday, May 23, 2000

The battle over broadband has begun.

Once, high-speed connections to the Internet were limited to large corporations. Now, thanks to technologies such as cable modems and digital subscriber line or DSL, those speeds are available to the majority of Alaska homes and businesses.

Over the last few months, the competition over broadband has heated up with the entry of Alaska Communications Systems into Alaska's top markets, which were previously served exclusively by GCI's cable TV operations.

In Juneau, ACS, doing business as PTI Communications, quietly entered the market in March, says Jeff Tyson, vice president and general manager of ACS Internet. Only in the past couple of weeks has the real marketing push begun, he said.

Broadband glossary

Broadband -- Refers to any fast Internet connection, usually five to 10 times faster than a dial-up modem.

Cable modem -- Provides high-speed Internet via cable TV.

DSL -- Digital Subscriber Line. Technology used by telephone companies to provide high-speed Internet over copper telephone wires.

Asymmetrical, symmetrical -- If transmission speeds are the same as receiving speeds, a service is symmetrical; thus, SDSL. If not, it is asymmetrical, as in ADSL.

Upstream -- Transmitting toward the Internet.

Downstream -- Receiving from the Internet.

Telephone return -- A connection that uses a telephone line for the upstream connection. Used on early models of cable modems and on satellite-based Internet service.

NIC card -- Stands for Network Interface Card. Required before any computer can connect to a DSL or cable modem.

Hub -- Allows more than one computer to share a broadband connection.

Ethernet -- The networking standard used to connect computers to hubs and to the broadband modem.

Cat 5 -- Stands for Category 5 and refers to the type of cable needed to connect computers to hubs and broadband modems.

Router -- A device required to connect an existing company network to the Internet. Provides limited security.

Firewall -- Software designed to prevent hackers from breaking into computers or company networks.

Tyson said that there are now 100 DSL subscribers in Juneau, with service available downtown, in the Mendenhall Valley, at Lemon Creek and at Auke Bay. Infrastructure for Thane Road is being built now, and Douglas should come on line within a couple of months, he said.

High-speed connections transform the Internet experience, as they reduce delays and make bandwidth-hogging applications such as video feasible.

The connections are part of a natural upgrade for consumers who became familiar with the Internet using dial-up modems and who now want to go faster.

That fact has not been lost on the telecommunications industry, which has rushed to provide fast Internet, in some cases before it was ready. Stories abound of unreliable connections and poor customer service for early adopters of the technology in the Lower 48.

In Alaska, providers have worked to solve those problems before roll-out. Their biggest challenge has been simply keeping up with the demand, as Alaskans clamor for the new services.

There are currently two ways to deliver fast Internet to customers: cable television coaxial cable or the twisted pair of copper wires from the phone company. Neither network was designed for this purpose, which has made deployment difficult.

Cable TV, for instance, was designed to be a one-way service. But the Internet is a two-way medium.

Extensive modifications to cable TV networks are generally required before they can begin offering Internet service. In Anchorage, GCI spent $8 million upgrading its cable system before it could offer fast Internet, according to the company's manager of public affairs, David Morris.

Telephone companies face a different challenge.

While their network has always been able to send and receive, phone wires designed for low-bandwidth voice calls are now being used to carry high-speed data. Beyond three or four miles from telephone switching centers, the broadband signal degrades so much it is unusable, limiting the number of customers who can get the service.

In the Matanuska Valley, Matanuska Telephone Association is spending $1 million this year to extend its switching network into neighborhoods so it can provide high-speed Internet to more of its members. Many Valley residents are on waiting lists because they live too far from switching centers, MTA officials said.

In Anchorage, ACS officials said the challenge of making its high-speed Internet service reliable delayed roll-out of the service for months. This gave GCI a huge advantage because it was the first to market with its cable modems in November 1998 and had the broadband field to itself for more than a year.

``We were behind the groove if you look at GCI and cable modems,'' said ACS marketing and sales vice president John Ayers at a recent speech in Anchorage to the American Marketing Association Alaska Chapter. ``If you're out there first, you can set the groove.''

Morris of GCI said about 9,100 of his company's 65,000 Internet customers are using the cable modem service. GCI offers cable modems in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks.

ACS rolled out its DSL offering Jan. 28 in Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks, followed recently by Kenai-Soldotna, but is only now beginning to aggressively market the service, which it is calling ``The Pipe.'' A business version, emphasizing security, is called ``SmartNet.''

Matanuska Telephone Association began offering DSL in Eagle River, Palmer and Wasilla in September.

``The demand was overwhelming,'' said Melanie Hoff, vice president of sales at MTA Solutions, an MTA subsidiary that is handling the DSL program.

The company has been enlarging its DSL service area ever since and expects to have broadband available to 85 percent of its members by the end of the 2000 construction season. So for Alaska's largest population centers, high-speed Internet is now available from both the local telephone company and the cable TV system. The stage has been set for the broadband wars.

Cable modems and DSL use very different network architectures to provide their service.

For one thing, DSL allows people to use their phone line for voice and data at the same time -- often eliminating the need for a second phone line. Another big difference is that Internet access via cable is a shared service, with everyone in a neighborhood on the same network -- much the way people share a company network on the job.

DSL, on the other hand, involves a dedicated connection via phone line to the Internet service provider. Telephone companies have been quick to charge that cable modems are less secure and subject to traffic slowdowns because of their shared design. Cable companies are equally quick to deny the charges, pointing out that proper management of bandwidth eliminates the slowdown problem.

``It's a red herring,'' said GCI Internet Services manager of product development John Barnhardt. ``There is no blockage in our network.''

As for security, GCI recommends that users turn off the file and print sharing features in their computers to prevent neighbors from seeing what is on their hard drive. Both GCI and Rogers Cablesystems encrypt every user's traffic, making it unreadable as it travels across the cable.

Once a signal reaches the Internet, there is no security at all. With dial-up modems, attacks on personal computers are rare because the connection is temporary and a user is given a new Internet address each time he or she logs on.

But the DSL and cable modem systems require no dialing and are always on, meaning they can have the same address for hours or days, giving hackers time to find them. For that reason, cable and telephone companies recommend not leaving your computer on all the time.

In addition, low-cost ``firewall'' software that detects and blocks intruders is available for Windows and Apple computers. While such software is optional for home users, it is strongly recommended for businesses with mission-critical data on their systems.

The cable companies insist their technology is superior, because cable's ability to carry vast bandwidths will lead to other services down the road. The telephone companies say their technology is safer, more reliable and less prone to congestion.

Competing claims aside, most observers believe both technologies will exist side by side.

``People aren't going to let their investment (in their networks) be stranded,'' said GCI's Barnhardt. ``There's too much at stake.''

So, like the competition for long-distance before it, consumers can expect to be bombarded by offers for the two types of high-speed Internet service.

``We're slugging it out,'' said Jeff Tyson, vice president of ACS Internet.

Nancy Pounds of the Alaska Journal of Commerce and Bill McAllister of the Juneau Empire contributed to this report.

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