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.
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.
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,
"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."
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,"
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.
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
— 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."