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May 13, 1997

May 07, 1997, Issue: 662
Section: Switched Services

Commuting via ADSL: Trials and Tribulations

By Charles Waltner

Carl Hu lived the telecommuter's dream. Hu, during a recent 12-week infant-care leave from Microsoft, spent time with his newborn daughter while remaining connected to his company's computer network at a speed comparable to his office LAN connection.

What's his secret? Hu is one of several dozen Microsoft employees testing an asymmetrical digital subscriber line service (ADSL) run by GTE in Redmond, Wash.

The current test uses ADSL modems, which run at 1.5 megabits per second upstream and 64 kilobits per second on the return channel. With speeds this fast, ADSL removes the problems typical of remote access connections via traditional phone and modem lines.

"When you are using a 28.8 Kbps modem, you have to really change the way you think and work," Hu says, referring to the wait required to access large network applications that are designed for running over 10Base-T Ethernet. "You can't just go out and grab whatever you want. But with ADSL, you can do anything at home you do on your network computer."

Glen Bachman, a manager at Bellevue Square Mall, a regional mall in Bellevue, Wash., finds using ADSL to surf the Net to be a new experience. "This is where the technology should be," Bachman says.

"I've played with ISDN, and this blows it away," says James Webb, program manager for Microsoft's ADSL test. "I can do lots of work now in real time that used to always be in a wait-state."

Webb adds that ADSL even helps E-mail by speeding the time to receive complex graphics file attachments, which he must frequently download.

Most carriers are now testing ADSL, and if results from other pilot programs are similar to GTE's, the technology could prove over the next few years to be a viable solution to remote network access.

Though Microsoft employees admit they have a vested interest in the project, the company is only testing to see how its software works with the new technology, hoping to develop work-at-home products it can sell to users of ADSL. The company has no direct financial investment in ADSL, according to Kyle Tanouye, GTE's ADSL project manager.

Testers at Microsoft and GTE report ADSL has proven extremely dependable. Webb, Microsoft's ADSL test program manager, says his modem hasn't been turned off in four months.

Microsoft employees, however, are in a special situation. The ADSL lines tie directly into a high-speed backbone running into the corporate network. Most telecommuters, however, would have to rely on the Internet to connect to their corporate network, and that would mean a loss of performance.

Hu, a senior program manager on the ADSL test, estimates that even with the best Internet connection, data can't travel faster than 120 Kbps, or roughly ISDN speed. Down the road, with promises of second- and third-generation ADSL modems running at 4 Mbps, the loss of performance from sending data over the Internet would be even greater.

To take full advantage of ADSL's speed, companies will need to extend their network backbones geographically, so that remote users can tap into them directly without having data exchange slowed by passing through the Internet. "Just giving people ADSL modems doesn't ensure that a company has a good telecommuting solution," Hu says.

Hu is hopeful that the establishment of ADSL will drive demand, which in turn will inspire carriers to create a high-speed alternative to the Internet by building out their backbones.

ADSL also carries some security concerns. The technology exposes corporate networks to infiltration via the Internet because of its architecture. As part of the current test, Microsoft is piloting remote work-at-home applications that address this issue. It is experimenting with Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), a security feature being integrated into Windows NT 4.0.

The staff at Microsoft, which also is testing cable modems in separate trials, says that ADSL could prove the more appealing technology for companies looking for a remote network access solution.

Unlike cable modems, ADSL modems do not require much re-engineering on the part of telephone companies. Also unlike cable modems, ADSL technology is more secure because each user has his or her own line, whereas data moved over cables shares bandwidth.

ADSL modem price estimates are now around $1,000, but that will likely drop as the base of users expands. Prices for either ADLS or cable modem products should be roughly equivalent, starting high and dropping as rollout moves forward.

GTE expects to begin offering ADSL commercially in several of its key markets this year, officials say, perhaps in the third quarter. GTE estimates service prices will range from $40 to $100 per month, depending on the class of service offered. The service class is tied to the speed of the modem: 1.5 Mbps is low end and 4 Mbps to 6 Mbps is high end, so prices per month will roughly match these two speed choices.

Copyright ® 1997 CMP Media Inc.

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