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,"
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
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."