DSL: Better Speeds and Feeds

To meet the increasing demand from state and local governments for high-speed Internet access, vendors are offering an emerging technology called Digital Subscriber Line as a low-cost alternative to dedicated lines.

To meet the increasing demand from state and local governments for high-speed

Internet access, vendors are offering an emerging technology called Digital

Subscriber Line as a low-cost alternative to dedicated lines.

The size and complexity of data available via the Internet is outpacing

the capabilities of dial-up modems and driving user demand for high-speed

Internet solutions to avoid being trapped by the "World Wide Wait."

Although several technologies, including cable modems and wireless devices,

offer high-speed Internet access, telecommunications vendors increasingly

are targeting the state and local markets for DSL solutions. They are marketing

DSL to schools that need to offer high-speed, low-cost access to students

and to centralized agency operations that need to connect remote offices

and telecommuters to internal networks.

DSL technology transforms traditional copper telephone lines into high-speed

data service lines to provide a continuous Internet connection at speeds

of up to 7 megabits/sec, without draining network resources. DSL traditionally

has been limited to users located in the nation's most populous cities,

but it is now offered in many smaller locales, and vendors are scrambling

to continue to expand services to meet user demand.

Computer Economics Inc. predicts that the market for DSL services will

grow 267 percent this year, with the number of DSL lines growing from 1.1

million this year to 10 million in 2004.

DSL Potential

For state and local governments, DSL is now dominating the high-speed

Internet access market, especially for those agencies that do not have the

cable infrastructure in place to take advantage of cable modems, said Ron

Westfall, senior analyst at Current Analysis Inc.

"The state and local government space is really a DSL space in the market

and will be for the foreseeable future," Westfall said. "When it comes to

agencies...DSL does have the edge over cable services...from an infrastructure

viewpoint and from a market experience viewpoint."

Chris Poer, senior manager for DSL product marketing at Lucent Technologies,

said DSL is ideally suited for schools because they usually have an abundance

of the needed infrastructure — phone lines — in place. DSL also offers significant

cost savings: It is usually about $60 per month cheaper than a T-1 line,

he added.

"It allows you to access the Internet and really zip along from site to

site," Poer said. "It allows [schools] to do that over existing telephone

wires. It's not a matter of running out new telephone wire."

In addition, Poer noted, because DSL uses the high end of the spectrum frequency,

a single telephone line supports multiple telephones being used at the same

time the Internet is being accessed.

"You can use that data bandwidth as voice channels," he said. "You can

actually transform that one telephone wire...to one that can handle up to

16 telephone numbers."

While several vendors are honing in on the high-speed access demands

of schools, US West is targeting the telecommuting market for its DSL products

and services. The ability to connect remote government workers back to host

computers is the prime application of DSL, said Connie Larson, senior market

manager for US West state and local services.

"Speed limitations have somewhat limited the capabilities of those remote

workers," Larson said. "In the past, you could not afford to have a [remote]

worker sitting around for an hour to download a megafile. With DSL, that

is no longer a barrier."

Officials in Bellevue, Wash., plan to release a request for proposals

next spring to create a virtual private network that will use both DSL and

cable modems to enable employees to remotely access internal agency servers,

said Dianah Neff, Bellevue's chief information officer.

In addition, Neff noted, the availability of DSL to citizens in the

community will be crucial for access to the Internet applications the city

is designing, such as applying for permits online. For some of the applications

involving maps and other large graphical files, it may be "almost impossible"

for citizens to access the applications without high-speed access, she said.

"It is a very important technology as far as the overall strategic direction

for citizens," Neff said. "If you're downloading a complicated form, it's

going to take longer if you have a slower modem. This is very beneficial

to allow us to deploy further the transactional side of the Internet."

Officials in Utah also are very interested in tapping the power of DSL

for telecommuters, but the infrastructure is not in place to allow them

to move forward, said Sherm Clow, senior network communications specialist

for the state. Now, the service is available only in limited areas of Utah,

and officials plan to continue to use Integrated Services Digital Network

technology, he added.

ISDN, which can transfer data at 64 kilobits/sec, is an international

standard for sending voice, video and data via digital telephone lines or

normal telephone wires.

"We still prefer ISDN...it's a very robust technology [and] particularly

for telecommuting, it's more universally available," Clow said.

However, he added, the state also is interested in using the technology

to replace certain frame-relay circuits for small, remote offices that need

to be tied back into a central agency's internal network.

"This way, we have a single frame-relay circuit and a single router

at one location," he said. "It's much cheaper."

DSL Drawbacks

In addition to problems with limited availability, DSL has other problems.

For example, the farther a user is from a local carrier's central office,

the lower the speed that is available. In addition, because data is traveling

via phone lines, if the lines are old or battered by the weather, data transmission

can be affected,

"DSL takes advantage...of the existing infrastructure," said Michael

Erbschloe, vice president of research at Computer Economics. "You still

need a certain level of quality within that infrastructure. That quality

is in newer installations, exchanges."

Vendors are tackling those service-level challenges. Frank Wiener, vice

president of broadband access solutions at Paradyne Corp., said the firm

has designed its modems so that if the line is degraded, data transmission

will downshift to slower speeds. The line can be monitored, and speeds will

increase when the line's quality is better.

"It may slow down the throughput...but the data should still get there error-free,"

Wiener said.

Brian Wilcove, Qwest Communications International Inc.'s senior product

manager of core IP networking services, noted that Qwest is offering DSL

as a business-class solution with service-level agreements.

"The biggest differentiation for us is our ability to provide service-level

agreements on DSL...making sure that the bandwidth that they buy is the

bandwidth that they actually get," he said.

Service-related drawbacks may be the most obvious to users, but analysts

point to security holes created by DSL's constant connection to the Internet

as its primary disadvantage. Erbschloe noted that those connections require

agencies to protect themselves from hackers with firewalls and other security

mechanisms. In addition, employees must be trained about security risks

from viruses, he said.

DSL's Future

Paradyne's Wiener noted that DSL and high-speed Internet access have

become synonymous, and that the technology soon will be move beyond its

infancy as a pure access technology.

"We can do a full portfolio of services," Wiener said. "DSL is going

to be another access offering to deliver frame-relay services. Virtual private

networks really start to allow you to offer site-to-site connectivity...in

a secure manner. Internet access was a great place to start. Why stop at

Internet access?"

— Heather Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.

A Remote Chance

Maricopa County, Ariz., is harnessing the power of DSL to link 10,000

county employees working throughout 26 buildings to centralized systems.

Using a solution from US West, the county is using DSL to link 120 remote

offices to centralized computing resources and to enable workers to telecommute,

said Jerry Allen, manager of the county's data communications group.

"We had already implemented WAN with [Asynchronous Transfer Mode],"

Allen said. "They could then take all of our remote sites...and put that

data on the ATM connection. It's a real clean way to bring them into our

network...and it makes it look like they're in our building."

Allen noted that the technology is critical to workers in remote offices,

who need access to internal applications housed at a central location.

"The applications and the data are not where the people are," he said.

"[But] it's not economical to place the file servers, the databases...out

in these locations," he said. "It is cost-effective to place a single server

in a centralized location."

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