The battle for the burgeoning high-speed Internet access market has been hyped as a closely fought match of communications sumos. In one corner: cable companies touting high-speed modems that zip data along cable's vast fiber-optic networks. In the other: local phone companies sporting a technology called ADSL that promises to turn sluggish copper wires into data sprinters. So far, at least, cable is winning in a blowout.
Even though the game has barely begun, analysts and industry executives alike say cable has a big early lead that will be difficult for its phone industry adversaries to overcome.
At Home, the cable modem service jointly owned by Tele-Communications and several other large cable companies, recently said it closed the second quarter with 147,000 subscribers, up from 90,000 at the end of March and 50,000 at the end of 1997.
Earlier this week, Motorola announced that it has shipped 170,000 cable modems already this year, and expects to sell around 320,000, total, in 1998. Analysts predicted the total number of cable modem subscribers will reach 425,000 to 500,000 by year's end.
In contrast, ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) is still struggling to get off the ground. GTE and the Baby Bells, the chief hawkers of ADSL services, are only now making their first moves from ADSL trials to commercial rollouts.
Bruce Leichtman, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group, estimates there will be just 25,000 paying ADSL customers by the end of 1998.
US West plans to have ADSL service available in 40 cities by the end of August. GTE has only begun selling ADSL commercially in the Seattle area, but it has already installed ADSL hardware in roughly 100 phone company "central offices" to prepare for a larger rollout. Pacific Bell is offering ADSL services in many parts of California, and BellSouth and Bell Atlantic are debuting ADSL commercially in August and September, respectively.
"The cable companies have a one-year head start on the telcos," William Rodey, vice-chairman of the ADSL Forum, an industry group, conceded in a recent press release, "and that's important because once a customer signs on with a cable company, that's going to be a hard customer to get back."
Phone companies are selling a consumer-friendly version of ADSL as a high-speed data service for small businesses, telecommuters and consumer Web surfers. At its top speeds, this "ADSL Lite" is around 25 times faster than today's quickest dial-up modem and around 12 times faster than an ISDN line. Here's what those speed differences mean as you cruise the Internet:
A simple 2MB image would take 35 seconds using Dial-Up 56KB, 17 seconds using ISDN128KB and 1.3 seconds on DSL 1.5MB
A complex 16MB Image would take 4.5 minutes using dial up, 2.4 minutes on ISDN and just 10.7 seconds with DSL.
A 72MB video would take 25 minutes to download using a dial-up connection, 10 minutes down an ISDN line and 48 seconds with DSL. Source: Concentric Networks
Most home Web surfers now log onto the Internet using dial-up modems with top speeds of 56 kilobits per second. ADSL services now debuting, by contrast, can ship data at speeds ranging from 256 kbps to 1.5 megabits per second - or five to 25 times faster than dial-up connections.
At Home claims its cable modem service can ship data downstream from Web sites to home users at 10 mbps to 30 mbps (150 to 500 times faster than dial-up), and upstream from users at rates of 768 kbps to 10 mbps. Those speeds fall, however, if multiple users in a neighbourhood log onto the network simultaneously.
In addition to a speed edge, cable modem services also have a price advantage over ADSL. The average price for Internet access over cable is around $40 per month. US West and GTE, however, offer a 256 kbps ADSL connection along with Internet access for $59.95 per month. SBC Communications Pacific Bell division offers a similar service in California starting at $89.95 a month.
ADSL proponents themselves are concerned about their ability to reach price parity with cable modem services. At an industry forum hosted by the International Engineering Consortium in Chicago last week, "Everybody was concerned that at this point in time the cost of the hardware is such that they can't really get it down much," says Robert Larribeau, a consultant with the Multimedia Research Group.
The price gap impacts strategy. "Clearly with [the phone companies'] ADSL pricing levels, they are not trying to go head to head with cable modems in areas where [both] are built out," says Michael Harris of Kinetic Strategies.
Rather, Harris believes, phone companies are directing their marketing muscle at small businesses and telecommuters who are less price sensitive than consumers, who access the Internet primarily for entertainment.
That view is corroborated by Jeff Bolton, director of GTE's ADSL program. While GTE firmly believes its ADSL services will prove attractive to many home Internet users, Bolton says ADSL has technical advantages that are likely to be highly valued by business customers.
"We're going after both markets, but I do think ADSL will appeal more to customer segments for whom the network reliability is very important, and also who have security concerns," Bolton says. "That's not to say cable modems are unreliable or unsecure, but it's a little bit more difficult to deal with security if you have 500 neighbours who are on your system."
Bolton's comment is a veiled reference to a security problem that flared briefly on At Home in mid-1997, when some users discovered they could see files on their neighbours' PCs if the neighbours had not disabled a file-sharing feature of Windows 95. At Home corrected the problem, but At Home users still share their Internet connection with others on their local cable loop. ADSL connections, by contrast, go straight from a residence to a phone company switch.
A pivotal milestone for both cable-based Internet services and ADSL is the development of standardised equipment that customers can buy at retail outlets. Currently, because of competing technical standards, a cable modem that works on a TCI cable system may not function on a Time Warner system; likewise, an ADSL modem that shoots data along a US West phone line may be lifeless on GTE lines.
The cable industry is putting the final touches on its cable modem standards, and new equipment should hit retail shelves in time for this year's Christmas season. For ADSL, standardised modems are closer to a year away.