Look! Up in the Air! Birds, Planes, Modem Competition!

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Look, up in the sky. There are birds (satellites), even
some loopy planes and scores of data-broadcasting initiatives -- all of which add up to
supercompetition for cable modems.

While telcos -- with their digital-subscriber-line
proposals -- may be the first and biggest competitor, the sky waves are quickly filling
with vendors that could cherry-pick some of the home data-delivery business.

For example, DirecPC, the woebegone Hughes Network Systems
one-way ISP in the sky, is reinventing itself this month. It will package its
400-kilobit-per-second satellite feed with a landline-return path from Epoch Internet.

DirecPC has about 60,000 customers worldwide, nearly
one-half of whom access the service via DirectDuo equipment, which transmits the DirecTv
video service and DirecPC data through the same dish. As part of its relaunch, DirecPC has
repriced its hardware and software down to the $300 range, with monthly access fees to be
unveiled later this month.

Although Hughes has stumbled during its first year with
DirecPC, the revamped retail campaign -- presumably to be offered at an attractive bundled
price -- underscores its intent to cream-skim the high-speed audience. The numbers may be
small, but they'll be nationwide, and not clustered to cable franchise areas or telco xDSL

Hughes is not alone in seeking a niche in the satellite
high-speed market.

CyberStar, the digital satellite service to be launched
this autumn by Loral Space and Communications, will include datacasting features for both
the consumer and business markets. The residential package is expected to debut next
spring, initially offering broadcast multicasts, video and audio streaming and high-speed
Internet access. A CyberStar team in Palo Alto, Calif., has quietly put together a
content-acquisition and management system to collect and package material for the service.
Adaptec, with its reach into retail distribution, is working with CyberStar to develop,
promote and market low-cost PC-to-satellite-based services for businesses and consumers.

Meanwhile, the "wireless cable" industry, which
is about to change its name to "wireless communications," is also on the data
trail. DirectNET, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based MMDS licensee, calls itself Florida's
first "wireless Internet-access company." It is offering Internet connections at
1 megabit per second to 2 mbps, with a back path via an analog modem or ISDN connection.
The initial pricing of DirectNET's service is about $200 per month, making it a
business-oriented package. Other wireless cable ventures are looking to the Florida
pioneer as a prototype. Subsequent providers could reconfigure the package for the
residential market -- at a cheaper price, of course.

And then, there's "the plane, the plane." Angel
Technologies Corp. is building a fleet of high-flying jet-powered gliders that will cruise
at 10 miles above major cities, starting later this year. Angel's "HALO Network"
(High Altitude Long Operational) will function as a super-ISP, with the planes functioning
as low-orbiting satellites; they'll bounce data at 16 gigabits per second around the
community and (thanks to terrestrial and satellite networking) between markets. This is a
longer-term and higher-flying approach, but it is another reminder of the visions and
appetite for data delivery that bypasses telephone (and cable) connections. Although
business-oriented, HALO's effect will ripple into homes, the St. Louis company believes.

Add to this Microsoft's deals last month, reinforcing its
plans to use broadcast and cable vertical-blanking intervals to transmit data to Windows
98-enabled PCs. We'll be hearing lots more about those efforts at April's National
Association of Broadcasters convention, where Microsoft will reassert its digital TV
assault. Wavetop, a start-up datacasting company that debuted at last year's NAB
convention, plans a second-generation attack, built on its role on the Win98 desktop.
Other ventures, such as a European-based company called Fantastic Corp., are expected to
unveil their U.S. datacasting agendas. Fantastic's Internet-protocol multicast is now
carried on the Astra European satellite, and its addressable technology is ready for North
American release.

In this wireless environment, the last 20 feet may even be
untethered. SWAP (shared wireless-access protocol) swooped into view early this month,
under the umbrella of the newly formed Home Radio Frequency Working Group. Among the
group's goals: to permit "Internet access from anywhere in and around the home, from
PCs or portable display devices."

The SWAP promoters (including Compaq, Intel,
Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Motorola, Philips and Ericsson) seek to establish a format
that lets PCs, peripherals, cordless phones and other consumer-electronics devices
communicate and interoperate with one another. SWAP is the latest in a long series of
home-area-network plans, which impact on telco, cable and even electric-utility
connectivity. The working group expects to publish its specification during the coming

Competition is inevitable. But in this case, just watch
your head!

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen is way over his head when
it comes to wireless access.