Pooping Out on the Party Line


Like most people "around the business," my pal in Connecticut gets questions from friends and neighbors who want advice about what kind of broadband service to install. Despite his decades of cable connections, he is advising neighbors — especially the guys next door — to go with telco digital-subscriber-line service.

It's a greedy move, intended to minimize the slowdown as local cable-modem facilities are overused (he hopes).

From Virginia to California, I'm hearing tales — especially from work-at-home cable modem users — of the daily "after-school slowdown," when broadband overload begins and connection speed declines.

In the case of my Connecticut friend, he's admittedly contributing to the clutter. His four-port wireless home network encourages everyone in his household to keep his or her link tied up throughout the afternoon and evening.

Horror stories

"Always on" means "usually slow" in the party-line atmosphere of cable connectivity. Hence the desire to steer nearby neighbors away from cable connections, lest they slow the process even more.

Unlike the voice party lines that largely disappeared decades ago, these data party lines don't even allow you to know whom to condemn for tying up a circuit.

This flaw in the otherwise amazingly upbeat rollout of cable modems has many dimensions — invariably slow. Stories persist of cable-modem connections snailing along near the dial-up pace: under 100 Kilobits per second.

The popularity of home networks — and especially wireless connections — adds to the problem.

Not that phone companies would capitalize on cable's weak spots. (As if!) But the router rebate offer that Verizon Communications Inc. is now offering demonstrates how telcos can take advantage of an opportunity.

Since late January and through mid-March, Verizon is offering $50 rebates to DSL customers who buy a Linksys Corp. wired or wireless router.

By encouraging adoption of the routers ($49.95 for the wired version and $99.95 for the wireless one, after rebate), Verizon is reminding high-speed users of its advantage.

The Verizon offer, likely to be repeated or adapted elsewhere, underscores the competitive ambitions of the DSL gang, which have long been the underdogs in the high-speed race. It also augurs new confrontations as broadband services move beyond their data-only existence.

For example, Parks Associates' latest study of "media PCs" shows that one-third of U.S. Internet households have a PC in the same room as their primary home-entertainment system.

The Parks research also acknowledged that two-thirds of homes with both broadband and co-located PC-and-entertainment systems also have a home network in place.

The next phase

That sets the stage for the next phase — and overload stage — of the broadband battle, as such homes (and the individual users therein) turn to the Internet for music, video and game access. Simultaneously.

And you think it's slow when dozens of neighbors are instant messaging and downloading today?

Since cable-modem architecture generally requires a separate Internet Protocol address for each computer on a home network (sometimes at extra fees), the slowing speed is merely one barrier in this fiercely competitive sector.

The ability to deliver consistent — and reliable — high-speed Internet service will be a defining factor as the next wave of users select a broadband provider, and as today's customers decide whether to stick with their current provider.

As the configuration of broadband providers and technology alliances shift, the appetite for consistent speed will become more critical.

If, for example, telco SBC Communications Inc. successfully bids for control of satellite provider DirecTV Inc., SBC could lure that customer base to DSL — including, possibly, out-of-its-region consumers.

Satellite customers, many of whom have abandoned cable video service, are already showing that when they want broadband, they turn to DSL rather than their former cable provider.

Whether its subsidized routers, persnickety neighbors or future connections to digital media centers, the need for reliable speed remains a central factor in the high-speed decision.

Party-line contention (and slowdowns) will not be appreciated.

Contributing curmudgeon Gary Arlen mans the I-Way Patrol for Broadband Week.