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Dallas Morning News

Many finding high-speed connections elusive

Vikas Bajaj
  Wednesday, September 20, 2000
Third Edition, Section: Special; pg. 8H

The Internet was supposed to nullify the power of the world's oceans, mountain ranges and other geographic nuisances that hinder communications between humans.

While it has done as much for many aspects of communication, most Americans can't connect to the Internet fast enough to watch a five-minute video clip in real time because they live a bit too far from the Net's nearest outpost.

Telecommunications companies have invested billions of dollars to create fiber-optic backbones that carry data faster than the mind can fathom. But economic and technical challenges have kept them from offering most residential customers a large-enough on-ramp to take an unencumbered joy ride on the information superhighway.

High-speed connections to the home are important because they will enable people to use their computers to make the most of the Internet. Working from home will become more practical, online shopping will become easier and virtual interactions will become more lifelike.


"Our future looks fuzzy, slow and jerky, as if we were talking to the moon or a space shuttle," said Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, a New York research group. "And I don't think the Bell [local phone] companies have any intention to do anything" about it.


Industry officials say they are working through the challenges to make high-speed access available to a majority of their customers.

"There are constraints right now, unfortunate as that is for the customers and the industry providers," said Bill Watson, southwest region president for Mpower Communications Corp. of Rochester, NY. "Everyone is working as feverishly as possible to deliver the service to the largest percentage of the population."

"We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do this," said Tony Boyd, vice president of engineering for AT&T Broadband in Dallas. "I really understand their desire for the product, and we will do everything we can to do this quickly."

The problem is the last few miles - known in industry parlance as the "last mile" - between a consumer's home and carriers' equipment.

Phone companies such as SBC Communications Inc. of San Antonio use copper lines that have limited capabilities. Cable companies such as AT&T use coaxial cable systems that must be upgraded before they can be used for two-way communications.

In 1998, fiber optics made up 97 percent of phone companies' backbones - lines that link their switching offices. By comparison, 82 percent of their connections to homes and businesses - the last mile - remained copper, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Replacing the cable and copper that goes to homes with fiber optics would solve the problem of high-speed access, said Hasan Pirkul, dean of the School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"We will have fiber to the home," he said. "I have no doubt about that. ... But it's a huge undertaking and significant undertaking and it's going to be slow because of that."

But replacing existing copper and cable with fiber is economically unfeasible, analysts and officials say. It would involve retrenching every American neighborhood, removing existing telephone lines and putting in fiber.

Ross K. Ireland, senior vice president of network planning and engineering at SBC Operations Inc., said companies would have to put more equipment into the ground to bring fiber to homes.

"As you get closer to the customer [with fiber], you need more devices, and there is more maintenance and a higher cost structure," he said.

The industry is pushing cheaper alternatives that include digital subscriber lines, cable modems and fixed wireless antennas. These technologies provide a middle ground between fiber and the status quo, but each comes with its own problems.

DSL service, for the time being, is limited to consumers living within 3.3 miles of phone companies' central offices. Cable systems need several years of work before they are ready to provide Internet access to all their subscribers. And residential fixed wireless service is not widely available.

In the meantime, tech-savvy consumers such as James Keel, 28, of Dallas go without services they would gladly pay a premium for.

"It's the curse of being an early adopter," said Mr. Keel, who had DSL service until recently when he moved a mile and half to a new apartment. "Basically my huge computer system sits there and I check e-mail on it, but I definitely don't spend as much time on it as I used to."

Mr. Keel, who works in the technical support department of a Dallas company, said he used his high-speed connection to download video and audio files from the Internet. He has tried to get the alternatives, but AT&T doesn't offer Internet service over cable in his neighborhood, and his landlord won't let him install a fixed wireless antenna on apartment property.

SBC, the parent company of Southwestern Bell, says it's bringing fiber lines and remote terminals deeper into neighborhoods that are too far from its central offices so that DSL will be available to virtually all residents in urban areas in the next few years.

That system would not help rural residents or those living in distant reaches of a metropolitan area.

"We plan to cover 80 percent of Texas [with DSL]," said Michael Turner, president of SBC Broadband Services. "We are working with the Texas Public Utility Commission to find ways to serve the rest of the state. ... It's not resolved, but clearly progress is being made."

Analysts say the last mile presents substantial challenges, but telecommunications companies are finding ways to ease the bottleneck. Cahners In-Stat, a San Jose, Calif., research firm, estimates service providers will spend $ 200 billion for high-speed access equipment in the next five years.  "You have to look at broadband more as an industry than a product, and if you do, you are more tolerant of learning curves," said Mike Lowe, a Cahners analyst. "I tend to be more tolerant."

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