The Information Technology Exposition conference rolled through Tucson Convention Center this week, bringing more high tech toys to a town that has been relatively busy wiring itself for the future. Free ITEC tickets had been floating around town for weeks, but if you couldn't make it or simply don't live here, read on to check out Tucson's digital future.
If you have any shred of computer-weenie in your personality, then expositions like the ITEC sound like a good way to spend an afternoon. Afternoons. There's nothing like taking a day off of work or school in the name of staying abreast of the newest technology, even if you end up spending the time hunting for freebies and playing with the gadgets.
The ITEC's exhibitors ran the gamut from wireless communications to internet service providers. The majority of boothes were local names, but no matter who it was, the dominant theme surrounding the ITEC was speed. Such a fitting focus for an industry whose products have an average lifespan of four months before they are obselete...
The x2 modem technology and all the surrounding brouhaha showed up in a number of booths. There are currently only a few internet service providers in the area that support the x2 technology -- and only a certain percentage of Tucson's phone lines are decent enough to carry it. For those of you who don't live in town, don't get me wrong, Tucson's phone lines aren't strung from cactus-to cactus, it's just the older parts of Tucson apparently haven't had the same phone upgrades as the northern parts have. And for those of you who do live in town, think of it this way - anyone south of 22nd St. will probably have a hard time getting their x2 modem to work on a consistent basis. Whether there is anything else to it other than old phone lines, I'm not sure, but the south side has enough going against it as it is without being limited in potential Internet growth.
The other hot topic at the ITEC was local service provider and news outlet StarNet's upcoming ISDN service. StarNet, if you haven't heard about it yet, is the electronic extension of a local daily newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star. They've filled an interesting niche for roughly two years because they're playing both hands of the Internet media game. They're responsible for both content and delivery, and you don't see that very often.
I can't say StarNet's relationship with the Arizona Daily Star is as strange as, say, your telephone company deciding to start their own newspaper, but it's definitely unique. Watch Tucson in the next five years, folks, because StarNet is setting themselves up as one of the lead experimenters in the media/Internet business, and not just because they're merging a newspaper with an ISP. A lot of eyes are focused on their foray into a very undefined market, but the good news for Tucson is that they're rolling out some new toys in the process.
StarNet says they want to enter the ISDN market by this summer. If you don't have the lowdown on ISDN yet, you can read about it here, but I'll simplify things for you in the meantime. ISDN stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, a faster way of transferring data and long way of saying "A way to cram a whole lot of information down your phone lines at a very high rate of speed."
How speedy is ISDN? Well, it makes your current modem look like a Pinto. According to the StarNet blurb, ISDN runs roughly four times as fast as a 28.8 modem and faster with software compression. I caught one of the StarNet demos and it was the same as all the other ISDN demos I've seen. There's no way around it - ISDN is just fast, darn fast, and nothing hooks an Internet junky (or company, for that matter) than something that runs at an obscene rate of speed.
StarNet wants to hook people on ISDN by offering a package deal of phone and internet service (with a daily online newspaper thrown in on the side, of course.) They have cut a deal with a new phone company in town, Brooks Fiber, in such a way that Brooks will handle the technical details of the lines but will leave the content and Internet work to StarNet. Even though the details of the actual service aren't clear yet, StarNet decided to go public with their demonstrations, and they were busy woo'ing the ITEC crowd this week.
It comes down to this: StarNet says anyone signing up for the service gets an ethernet card, a Cisco Systems ISDN router and their own ISDN line capable of handling two simultaneous phone lines and data transfer. In order to do this, subscribers must sign on with Brooks Fiber, dropping their old phone company (and, apparently, their phone number) in the process. It's a swap - your old phone company for a phone/Internet/media hybrid, all delivered at the speed of light.
All in all it sounds like a good deal. The chance to get your own personal line rivaling a direct T-1 connection isn't something you run across every day. For now there is a catch, though, that makes me wonder about future snags. StarNet has yet to come out with any concrete pricing plans or rates, and none of the StarNet people I spoke with seemed to have any idea as to what the terms of service would entail as far as user commitments would go. They assured me that the equipment would be given out on a leased basis (meaning they're not letting anyone run off with the Ethernet card or the router, darnit) -- but other than that they couldn't give me any numbers, period. They keep saying it will be cheap, but cheap is a matter of opinion, and I find it weird that they would go public without a concrete game plan.
There is one other thing I'm worried about as well. StarNet is my ISP. I depend on them a lot, sometimes five or six hours a day. They have done a pretty good job keeping up with their system's growth over the last few years, but they still have occasional usage blackouts where anything outside the StarNet system is unavailable for undetermined lengths of time. No email, no WWW, nothing. In the old days, someone would usually post a brief explanation as to what happened for those of us who were sitting at home, waiting for service. The last few times, though, no such message has been posted, leaving us die-hard users wondering what took place when they come back online.
The StarNet support staff tells me that the problem lies in their link to the Internet backbone, through SprintLink, meaning it's not something they have control over. They also assure me that when SprintLink goes wacky, they're not the only ISP to go down, so it's not like they're the only ones affected.
Sure, that makes sense. The Internet is getting crowded these days, and I know there aren't many choices to make when you're connecting on such as large scale. I wonder, though, how things are going to hold up once the new lines go in. If ten thousand ISDN lines come in 1997, are they all going to be at the mercy of SprintLink's sporadic blackouts? Will an increase in the number of businesses that use StarNet force them to rethink their role as a provider and keep a second pipe online to deal with the possibility?
As with all new technology, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
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