Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Poised for New Telecommunications Era Phone Companies, Cable TV Rush to Be First with Visionary Ideas to Transmit Information

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

US Poised for New Telecommunications Era Phone Companies, Cable TV Rush to Be First with Visionary Ideas to Transmit Information

Article excerpt

IF the decade of the 1980s belonged to the personal computer, then the 1990s surely belong to telecommunications.

The telltale signs are there: applications from new entrepreneurs, a bewildering number of communications methods, and huge corporations waiting to capitalize on this chaotic industry.

No one knows when - or even if - the market will explode. But there is growing consensus that the United States has to upgrade its communications network now in order to prepare for the new era.

"It's like building a highway into the wilderness and hoping that businesses will follow," says Robert Lucky, executive director of AT&T Bell Laboratories. "They usually do."

The next few years will provide tantalizing glimpses of what the new telecommunications highway might look like.

Last month, Congress took an important first step in promoting the most visionary of the approaches. It passed the $2.9 billion High-Performance Computing Act, sponsored by Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee.

The plan would link government, university, and library computers in a National Research and Education Network or NREN. The NREN would be built on top of an existing network, the National Science Foundation's NSFNET. But it would be much faster. The NSFNET operates at 45 million bits per second. The new act calls for NREN to transmit data at 1 billion bits per second by 1996.

Earlier this month, Bell Labs announced its own 2.5 billion-bit network (dubbed the "LuckyNet" for Dr. Lucky), which links three locations via optical fiber and microwave radio.

Senator Gore calls NREN the "information superhighway" - a catalyst for what he hopes will become one day a national fiber-optic network.

"The biggest impact would be on education and training," says Bill Norris, chairman emeritus of Control Data Corporation and a backer of the idea. "A fiber-optic nationwide network with access to everybody would put us back into the international forefront."

The problem with fiber optics is that it's expensive. Some analysts estimate that linking every US household to a fiber-optic network would cost $3,000 apiece. The national tab would run at least $100 billion. Cheaper alternative

So, telecommunications companies and entrepreneurs and consumer groups are casting about for a cheaper and more immediate alternative. One of the most promising is Integrated Services Digital Network or ISDN.

The appeal of ISDN is that it can deliver many benefits of fiber optics with only a modest upgrade of the existing telephone network (mostly new software and new digital phones).

"It's a ways off before you get fiber to the home," says Jerry Berman, the incoming director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Washington office. "But a lot can be done with applying ISDN in the near term.... The issue is establishing the right conditions for that. …

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