Europe explores alternative Net access

Europe's newly opened telecom markets should lower Net access costs, but new types of providers are also taking advantage of deregulation to offer alternatives to phone-line access.The new Infobahn on-ramps range from cable connections that offer high-speed data transmission on top of movies and television to wireless links viasatellite -- even to the electrical outlets in the wall, a method that has put one British school online.

Europe's newly opened telecom markets should lower Net access costs, but new types of providers are also taking advantage of deregulation to offer alternatives to phone-line access.

The new Infobahn on-ramps range from cable connections that offer high-speed data transmission on top of movies and television to wireless links via satellite -- even to the electrical outlets in the wall, a method that has put one British school online.

All are still in the start-up phase but are attracting the interest of industry heavyweights hoping less-expensive access methods will encourage more Europeans to connect to the Internet.

"Telecommunications costs in Europe are four to eight times higher than in the United States," said James Richardson, president of Cisco Systems Europe. "These types of access have potential. We are involved in a lot of these methodologies, and some look promising."

While the U.S. has had competition among telephone companies for more than a decade, Europe had allowed national phone companies to keep their monopoly positions until this year. On Jan. 1, scores of new companies began offering long-distance services to compete with Deutsche Telekom AG, France Telecom SA, and other national carriers.

INTERNET STILL COSTLY

The opening of the market has brought almost immediate drops in long-distance rates, and modest drops in local rates, but that brought only partial relief for Internet users. Local phone service in almost all European Union countries is still provided only by the former monopoly carriers, which charge by the minute for local calls.

While U.S. Netizens can surf all day for a flat fee, Europeans have to pay for every minute they're online, an arrangement that has hindered Internet use.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 20 hours of Internet access in the U.S. costs $29, including phone and provider fees. But it costs $74 in Germany, $52 in France, $65 in Britain, and $53 in Italy.

New access methods could help Europeans avoid those local phone costs, but analysts have mixed opinions.

"Alternatives like cable are viable and are taking off, but satellite won't appear on a large scale until 2001 or 2002," said Jahangir Raina, an analyst at Phillips Tarifica LTD in London. "Once satellite takes off, there will be serious competition with fixed-line networks."

A UNIQUE PLUG-IN

One of the more exotic access ploys, power-line access, has the advantage of using the copper cables that already run to almost every home, and it supports high transmission speeds, but interference from other signals is still a problem, he said.

But the Seymour Park Primary School in Britain is ecstatic over its pilot program to gain Net access via electrical outlets.

Located in Trafford, near Manchester, the school has 12 PCs connect to the Net via devices that plug into standard electrical outlets. The connection has greatly accelerated Net response times, a big advantage in a classroom full of 12-year-olds.

"The high-speed connection lets us really take advantage of the educational potential of the Internet. With a normal connection, the children could lose interest waiting for pages to download," said Headteacher Jenny Dunn. "The new system means information arrives virtually instantaneously, thereby maximizing teaching time and keeping children on task."

The technology was jointly developed by Northern Telecom and the local electric company, Norweb Communications, which eventually hopes to expand the program to utilities around the world.

SATELLITES, MICROWAVES AND MORE

Not to be outdone by the British, one French company is boasting a new, high-speed access alternative -- a first-of-its-kind satellite system designed for large corporations.

Developed by the Matra-Grolier Network, a venture started by France's Lagardere Group, the service is expected to cost about 600 francs ($120) per month -- or about 10 times the price of the cheapest phone connection.

However, the data and sound transmission should improve by the same proportion, the company said.

Moving eastward, Hungarian broadcaster Antenna Hungaria says it produced the world's first microwave Internet link.

Users would still have to dial up via a phone line to initiate the connection, but data would be downloaded through an AM micro channel that can transmit up to 20M bits per second. To take advantage of the high-speed connection, users have to install a microwave receiver and a QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) modem.

Elsewhere in Europe, cable operators are beginning to add Web access to their services. Cable Management Ireland is preparing a two-way service to be available by mid-1998.

In Holland, cable operator A2000 recently began offering subscribers in the city of Purmerend high-speed cable modems and expects to expand availability of the service within a few months.

While these developments point to a future where one line brings telephony, Internet access, television, and maybe even power to a house, "that will still take a long time" to develop said Raina.