Readers who remember the Internet's Pleistocene, about five years ago, will recall that flat-rate, low-cost Net access was not always the norm. Before the Web took off, Internet service typically involved higher monthly fees, start-up costs and hourly rates.
What brought the fees down, making the Internet the reasonably affordable time-waster it is for most U.S. residents today? Competition -- brutal, price-slashing competition that eventually forced even the industry behemoth, America Online, to toss its business model out the window and give up its hourly rates.
Today $20 to $25 a month gets you access, but it's slow access. For years now the cable TV and telephone industries have been promising that faster ("higher-bandwidth" or "broadband," as the jargon has it) Internet connections for the home are just around the corner. And for years, that promise has been a joke.
While the cable companies rolled out reasonably priced cable-modem Internet service from town to town at a painfully slow rate, the telephone companies tried to sell an inferior and overly complex service called ISDN at prices that drove consumers away. Then they began offering DSL, a higher-speed, next-generation service, but only in a few areas and still at overly high prices.
If anything can break this logjam, it will be, once again, plain old competition. We won't get affordable high-speed Net access in our homes until and unless the cable providers and telephone companies lock horns and fight to offer us better service at lower rates.
This week there are some heartening signs that such a telecommunications battle royale may finally be getting started.
On the East Coast, Bell Atlantic and America Online announced a deal to offer Bell Atlantic's DSL service as a $20 upgrade to AOL customers. Here in California, the local phone company -- Pacific Bell, which is now owned by SBC (Southwestern Bell) -- has dropped its price for DSL to the point where it begins to make some sense for the home user. For $40 a month you get service at speeds up to 1.5 megabits per second, with a guaranteed 384 kilobits per second. Even that lower rate is 10 times the typical connect speed of one of today's 56K modems.
Not coincidentally, that $40 is just about what @Home, the cable modem Internet provider, charges for its basic service through TCI, the cable TV giant. SBC will offer its new pricing to its customers in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas as well, and it's likely that other regional Bells will drop their DSL pricing soon to follow suit.
This means that for the first time, home Internet users who want high-speed access will stop being supplicants -- "Please, please bring your broadband service to my neighborhood! Pretty please! I don't care what it costs!" -- and start being consumers with free choice. From now on, we can begin to compare the advantages and disadvantages of cable modems and DSL and make decisions based on which technology is better, faster, cheaper.
While both services provide vast advantages over standard-modem Net access, each has its quirks. At their best, cable-modem speeds peak at a significantly higher rate than basic DSL service (you can pay a premium for speedier DSL if you want). But thanks to the design of cable networks, with a cable modem you are sharing the total available bandwidth in your neighborhood with other users: If no one else is using the line, you're going to see higher performance than if everyone on your street is logged on at the same time.
Until now, most pundits have put their bets on cable modems. The cable companies are more nimble than the regulation-saddled phone companies, and they have something of a head start: At the end of 1998 there were, according to various estimates, from 450,000 to 600,000 U.S. homes served by cable modems, as compared to 25,000 to 60,000 DSL lines in service.
But it'd be foolish to write off the phone companies -- they've got a better service record and more public trust than their cable-company rivals, and they've got a strong incentive to try to grab customers quickly before this market gels. The lines between phone and cable service are blurring anyway -- the merged AT&T/TCI, for instance, plans to offer telephone service over TV cable.
Ultimately, all most of us will care about is: How good is the service, how fast is the access and how little am I paying? Along with, of course, the all-important question: How soon can I get it? (My neighborhood in Berkeley gets its cable TV from TCI, but TCI isn't offering its @Home cable modem service yet, and won't say when it will; meanwhile, PacBell's DSL is supposed to be available now, but if you call to order it all you get are busy signals.)
There's one important aspect of all these developments that nobody seems to be commenting on: While both DSL and cable modems speed up home users' Net access and provide an "always on" Net connection (no waiting for dial-up, no tying up phone lines), both are simply providing souped-up Internet access, not something fundamentally different from the Net as we know it. @Home offers users its own multimedia-enhanced Web service designed to take advantage of its higher speed, and the phone companies may follow suit; but both industries are primarily serving traditional Internet users who need faster lines to visit Web sites, transfer files and telecommute. DSL and cable modem deliver higher-quality Net-based video and audio than your old modem ever could, but they don't come close to delivering TV-quality video to your computer desktop. (@Home, in fact, revealed last fall that if users did start downloading TV-quality video it would have to place a 10-minute limit on such data.)
In other words, these services don't turn the Internet into "interactive television" or "video on demand" -- they just improve the Internet itself. So much for the early-'90s pipe dream of a proprietary-style "information superhighway" emerging from the belly of the old broadcast world: It has puffed its last. The Internet will keep evolving, of course, and just as it may absorb voice telephony in coming years, someday -- decades down the line -- it might even swallow broadcast TV. But such changes will come as dictated by the needs and wishes of Internet users, not as laid out in unwieldy corporate blueprints for the future.
This year's looming DSL vs. cable modem battle is one more example of the best quality of the Internet -- its ability to put more information and power in the hands of its users, and to force large institutions to serve individuals. The faster our Net access, the easier it will be for us to let those institutions know what we want.