Cable TV, Satellites, or Ma Bell: Whoís gonna win?

Are you as confused about where you should go to get your Internet access these days? I remember with fondness the Good Ole Days (about three years ago) when shopping for an Internet provider took all of five minutes to find the only three people that would sell you service. But thatís all gone now: today we have access commercials on radio and TV. ("Sign up for the uncensored Internet!")

And access has quite frankly become an unholy mess: there are so many positioning statements flying fast and furious, not to mention the occaisional debut of Actual Service, you almost want to just go home and crawl into your AOL hole and hide.

Cable TV is getting a lot of play, especially as Sunnyvaleís @Home and Elmiraís Time Warner systems come closer to commercial reality. PacBell would like to become your Internet Service Provider if you live in a major California urban area. AT&T announces free Internet access to its long distance customers -- and then doesnít have enough bandwidth to answer the resulting flood of inquiries. Sprint announces Internet -- er, make that Intranet access (whatever that means).

And in the midst of all this confusion, once-promising alternative highways are being rerouted to the nearest Internet toll plazas: Appleís eWorld (call it a mercy killing), Lotus/AT&Tís Network Notes, AT&Tís Interchange, Genie, et al. Compuserve and Prodigy are on the block.

Never a dull nanomoment on the infobahn, to be sure. Not that I donít mind -- I thrive on the confusion, it is good for my consulting and writing business. The moment all of this stuff becomes predictable I am out on the street, and have to find my own alternative access methods of generating cash. Well, there is no fear of that happening soon.

Apart from the consulting boon, all of this access confusion is actually quite timely for me for two reasons: one, I am in the midst of moving my domain name from Nameless Unreliable Provider to as yet parts unknown. So I am shopping around: I want a shell account and domain service, and a pointer to another provider where my web site will live. I donít want any dial-up access: I got plenty of that with Compuserve and MSN modems to call all around the landscape, not to mention my ISDN line to Uunet. Yet this simple request has turned into A Project, and is taking more time than I care to tell to resolve.

And two, a recent assignment from Windows Sources magazine to write their June feature on high-speed Internet access brought all this in perspective. Part of the assignment was testing the Hughes DirecPC satellite link and comparing it with ISDN and other methods. (More on that in a moment)

So here are a few words of wisdom, to the various parties concerned. First, for the phone companies (local and long distance): get a clue about how to sell data -- it can be an honorable profession, really. Learn from the mistakes of PSI, BBN, Uunet and others. By all means, make it easy for virgin data and modem users to figure out how to get in touch with you. Try finding out about Sprintís service (not to single them out, but a nice example): I challenge anyone to find information on their web site within three mouse clicks about their Internet access program -- Iíll even pay $25 for the first person to send me how they found it. (I tried the traditional approach, calling Clueless PR Inc., but never got anywhere.)

For the cable companies: there is a reason why @Home is spending so much time building their private IP network: youíll need to do the same if want to deliver a decent amount of bandwidth. But letís get some real standards, say at least some agreement on the uplink data rates.

For Hughes and their birds up over the equator: if my experience with DirecPC is typical, you have a long way to go to deliver a turn-key product that John Q. Modem can use with ease. (Not to mention the fact that I got nowhere near the promised 400 k bps throughput -- more like half that on a good day.) Too bad they have no Mac solution: the notion of plug and play IP would work nicely there. (DirecPC only runs on Windows and OS/2 right now.)

And for the remainder of the providers who still want to play in this business: start thinking about the coming days when providing pipelines (how to get dial-up connections to the Internet) will become a separate business from providing content (web hosting and email and news delivery). By pipelines, I mean the trio of Compuserve, MSN (really Uunet) and AOL -- they will end up with the most modems in the most cities and take care of dial-up access once and for all.

Am I the only one that has divorced my dial-up access needs from where my domain is served? I donít think so -- in the coming months, weíll see more and more corporations begin to use the Internet as their dial-up WAN. Too bad not that many providers are yet hip to this trend.

Sitekeeping, self-promotions and awards depít

Here is a copy in case you missed my review in Infoworld last week on Microsoftís Internet Server. Also, thanks to Internet World for mentioning Web Informant in their latest issue on on-line zines.

And our sole award is a Lost.In.Web.Space (bad news) for Giga Information Groupís ExperNet web site. While this latest project from Gideon Gartner has some merit, the web site is a confusing morass making it all but impossible for me to sign up my services as a consultant on the wire. This is truly a web site designed by Dr. Smith.

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David Strom
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