* Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) – The Next Big Thing

With a DSL line, you’ll be able to surf the Web at home or at your office at speeds comparable to – and in many cases faster than – leased-line services at a fraction of the cost.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 1/1/1999; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

I remember the first time that a new technological innovation impressed me. It was the early 1970s in Maine when my best friend’s family got their first touch-tone phone. Joe and I thought this was pretty cool. There was no slow rotary dial, the keys lit up, and you could play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the keypad. Although it would be another twenty years or so before I had a use for the “*” and “#” keys.

It would also be nearly another twenty years until another technological innovation impressed me. This time it was 1988, the first time I saw a fax machine in use. And it was probably not that long ago when your firm first added its fax number to your letterhead and business cards.

Then came the Web. Were you impressed with the Web the first time you saw it? I wasn’t. It was around 1993 when I first saw the Web, not in graphical form, but text-based. Just like the early Gopher interfaces, except much more messy. I loved Gopher. It was neat, organized, had a nifty search engine (VERONICA), and there were lots of cool Gopher sites worldwide to explore. The Web, on the other hand, had no organization, no search engine, no clear advantages.

Then came the first time I saw a graphical Web (with Mosaic). And I said “Ah, I get it.” I had been a Macintosh user for years, and I realized that what the Macintosh Operating System (and Windows thereafter) did for personal computing, a graphical Web was going to do for the Internet.

There was at least one other time when I immediately realized that a new technology was going to change everything. And that was in about 1985 when I first used a laser printer. I remember thinking that the output looked just like a book and that this would lower the barriers to publishing. Interestingly, the Internet ­ and the Web in particular ­ lowered the barrier to publishing even more. Even to the point of redefining what publishing means.

The touch tone telephone, the laser printer, the fax machine, and the Web. Technological innovations that changed everything. Some I recognized immediately as revolutionary, others I did not. And today I believe we are poised to witness the introduction of another new technology that will change everything: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology. This is the next big thing.

DSL is a technology that was invented in 1987 by Bellcore (and others) as a way of delivering digital services, including digital video, to residences over Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) lines. By comparison, ISDN, another method of delivering digital data over ordinary telephone lines, was originally developed by AT&T in 1968. DSL has been referred to as the “ISDN killer” since it offers higher speed services at a much lower price than ISDN.

Figure 1: Time and Distance: A Quick Comparison
Technology Receive Send Distance
56 K analog 56 Kbps 33.6 Kbps no limitations
ISDN 128 Kbps 128 Kbps 3.4 miles
ADSL Lite up to 1 Mbps up to 384 Kbps 4.2 – 4.7 miles
ADSL 1.5 – 8.0 Mbps up to 1.5 Mbps 2.3 – 3.4 miles
DSL technology clearly is much faster than older communications standards but is distance-sensitive.

What all of this means is that with a DSL line, you’ll be able to surf the Web at home or at your office at speeds comparable to – and in many cases faster than – leased-line services at a fraction of the cost. If you have only experienced the Internet over a dial-up connection, you have not experienced the Internet. If your office has a 1.54 Mbps T1 connection to the Internet, you know what I’m talking about. Like RAM and MHz on my PC, I can never get enough bandwidth.

In short, DSL is faster, better, and cheaper than ISDN. And entry-level DSL packages are being priced to compete with dial-up accounts. If you are using a $19.95/month dial-up connection at work, you’re probably paying about three times that for Internet access, because you have to count the phone line charges, and many business phone lines charge per minute for local calls. With only a handful of dial-up connections, the costs add up quickly. Similarly, with a DSL line, you’ll have to pay for the line itself and for the Internet charges. But one DSL line can replace all of your dial-up lines.

Who is selling DSL? Since DSL services are available over ordinary copper phone lines, you should be able to purchase it from your local telephone company, otherwise known as the Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC). But you’ll also need an Internet Service Provider to provide the Internet part of the connection. ILECs that also want to also sell Internet service are required by law (including the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to do so through a subsidiary. The law is designed to make sure that ILECs treat their own Internet companies or divisions no different than they do to independent ISPs. The law has had interesting effects. In Chicago, for example, ILEC Ameritech announced it was temporarily pulling out of the DSL market while it figured out if its Internet strategy complied with the law. This leaves the door wide open for Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs) such as Rhythms NetConnections (http://www.rhythms.net/), Covad Communications (http://www.covad.com/), and NorthPoint Communications (http://www.northpointcom.com/) to dominate that market.

These new phone companies, Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLECs), were born thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The short story is that in exchange for being able to sell long distance services, the ILECs are required to provide CLECs access to their local facilities. Some CLECs, also know as data or packet CLECs, have decided to focus their business on the DSL market exclusively. By installing their equipment in local telephone company central offices, the CLECs are able to provide service to customers within a certain distance of the central office. The CLECs can then sell Internet services either directly or in partnership with ISPs.

The advantage of working with CLECs is that the data business (and in the short term the DSL business) is their only business. And anybody that has had to deal with the nightmare of working with an ILEC on an ISDN installation will welcome the opportunity to work with another phone company. I don’t know too many people who have a touchy-feely relationship with their ILEC. So if I were a betting man (and I’m not), my money would be on the CLECs to win the battle for DSL market share.

What can you do with a DSL line? What can’t you do! Imagine that you’ve set up a simple network in your home/office and that you’ve set up a virtual private network (VPN) to your main office. Since the DSL line uses the part of your telephone line that are not used by voice, you can use the same phone line for Internet service and for voice (by installing a splitter on the line). So you could call the office (on the same line that you’re using for Internet access) and ask you coworker to print out a document you need on the printer that is on your desk. Or you could set up video teleconferencing, or a Web server, or anything! If you can imagine a task that requires sending and receiving tons of information, you’ll probably be able to accomplish that task at home or at the office in the not-too-distant future. And maybe even today.

What’s the downside? DSL is a distance-sensitive service (see chart), so the closer you are to the telephone company’s central office the higher speed service you’ll be able to get. There are no real standards yet, which means that wide-scale deployment of DSL is probably a few months away. But industry consortiums such as the Universal ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) Working Group (http://www.uawg.org/) are pushing hard for a compromise standard called ADSL Lite that will provide a lower speed flavor of DSL to a broad range of customers.

But the upside is huge. DSL is the next big thing. Like the graphical Web revolutionized the Internet, DSL is already revolutionizing Internet access.

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