Rupert Goodwins: "IT's Like This..."

Ever since I've been using computers, I've been fascinated by ISDN. It was the original digital access technology -- a digital phone line that worked ten times faster than the best modems of the day.

Ever since I've been using computers, I've been fascinated by ISDN. It was the original digital access technology -- a digital phone line that worked ten times faster than the best modems of the day. Too good to be true, I thought. And ever since then, I've been horrified by BT's approach to selling it -- the company clearly agrees that ISDN really is too good to be true and on no account should it be given to us ordinary users. For most of the technology's life, it has been restricted by price and availability to high-cost business use, which is criminal -- it was designed to eventually replace the analogue phone system, not to be a minor adjunct to it.

And then, at the end of last year, BT seemed to start making the right noises. A new service, Home Highway, would appear and would finally make ISDN attractive to the ordinary user. Technical details weren't prolific, but the service was going to provide two 64kb/s ISDN lines together with an interface that could made them look like ordinary telephone lines. The idea was that this could be plugged in instead of an existing phone installation and everything would go on working as before -- with the exception that there'll be 128kb/s of Internet connectivity there if you want it. You want it. I want it. Are we finally going to get it?

What do you think?

Here's what I've found out, as of Tuesday. The service will be launched on 3rd September. Technical details will be available then. Although it will run 'at up to 128k with the appropriate service providers', BT doesn't actually know of any service providers that support 128k. Some have said they will (including BT Internet): none has said by when or how much this will cost. Provisional indications from within a large ISP are that such a service will be heavily surcharged and aimed at businesses only (unlike Home Highway, which cannot be used by businesses). Thus, for the moment, you can only access the Internet at 64kb/s via Home Highway. When ISPs start to support 128k, you'll have to make two simultaneous calls -- nothing unusual in that, as that's how ISDN works -- but BT will carry on charging you for two simultaneous calls at full whack. As most people's limiting factor on Internet access is the phone bill rather than the ISP charges, Home Highway won't give much of an advantage.

And then we get onto the fixed costs. There is a variety of installation and rental options, none of which is remotely as cheap as a single analogue line. Installation can cost £250 but they'll knock £100 off if you're converting from an analogue line. Rental pans out at around three times the cost of a single analogue line, for which you get two ISDN lines. As you can only currently use one of those lines at a time to provide Internet access, you're paying three times the rental to get 64k instead of 56k. Mmmmm, bargain.

Despite all this, Home Highway is slightly cheaper than ISDN. To prevent businesses from taking advantage of this -- the scamps -- BT won't install Home Highway in businesses. Instead, it will offer the same service -- but at full ISDN costs -- renamed Business Highway.

BT has done it again. In order to protect its positioning of ISDN as a premium-rate business service, it's knobbled the domestic version. Instead of boosting the market, it's just going to make it twitch a little in its death throes. How does BT get away with this? It's still a monopoly -- the alternatives, which are supposed to make the market competitive, are even more incompetent. You try getting home ISDN or a cable modem out of a cable TV company -- actually, even getting them to spell ISDN is a triumph. And as for Ionica, the company that was going to send us bits by radio: you might as well hope to be within range of Scotty's transporter beam.

The saddest part of it all is that BT will still be in that monopoly position when it's time to roll out ADSL -- ISDN's successor with the megabit speed. What motivation will the company have, when all ADSL can do is impinge on leased line and existing ISDN revenue? Nobody else can offer ADSL, though.

One cure remains. By forcing BT to unbundle its local loop -- the cables that connect subscribers to the exchanges -- the Government could open the market to all. Then, anyone could offer DSL and the fact that the technology can substantially undercut BT's artificial rates would become a bonus, not a deadly drawback. If we don't do this, then the Home Highway fiasco will be repeated once again, and the UK will drift even further behind the US in the march towards a connected world.