ISDN: Ready for Prime Time
by David Strom

(Forbes, 2/26/1996)

What does Frank Sinatra and an obscure kind of digital telephone service have in common? Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN as it is called, was one of the technologies that helped Ole Blue Eyes make his "Duets" albums possible. Sinatra and each of his singing partners were connected across country by ISDN phone lines so they could stay close to home and still record their music. Using ISDN gave the singers' better audio quality that would have been impossible over ordinary phone lines.

ISDN makes such technical tour-de-force possible: unlike ordinary analog telephone service, you have a complete digital end-to-end connection, ideal for speedy data connections. In order to make it work, you need to make use of special modems, called terminal adapters, along with other digital networking gear that is operated by your local telephone company. The benefits are great: ISDN lines operate at five to ten times as fast as ordinary modem connections, making remote computing easier and operate faster. For applications such as tying together branch offices, telecommuting and connecting to the Internet, ISDN can be an ideal solution. And unlike other digital services available from your phone company, it can be relatively inexpensive -- less than a hundred dollars per month instead of multiple thousands.

However, like the Chairman of the Board, most local phone companies want ISDN setup "my" way: The real problem is telling your local phone company how to "provision" (in phone company lingo) your ISDN line -- telling them the exact details on a dozen or so obscure parameters. "Obtaining this information was an incredible pain," said Ed Tittel, a principle in LANrights, an Austin, Tex.-based consulting firm who uses US Robotics gear and NetManage Inc's Chameleon software for Internet access. "I had to talk to four people before I got to somebody in SouthWest Bell who was ISDN-literate."

Think of requesting this advanced service from "Earnestine" (Lily Tomlin's favorite telephone operator) about advanced digital technology, and you'll get the idea. Alan Smith, the CFO at law firm Grunsky, Ebey, Farrar, and Howell is using ISDN to connect two law offices in Watsonville and Salinas, California. He feels that "the amount of hidden costs, misinformation, and lack of support make ISDN technology for us questionable at best." If he had to make the decision today, Smith would consider even faster digital connections than ISDN.

To understand ISDN you'll need to know how an ordinary modem works. When two computers talk to each other, they convert their data from a digital electronic form into sounds that can travel over analog phone lines. ISDN circumvents this digital--to-analog-to-digital converstion process and keeps the conversation completely digital from end to end. The fastest modems communicate at 28.8K bit/sec., or roughly moving a page of text every second. ISDN rates are 128K bit/sec. "It offers the highest bandwidth at the lowest cost above a 28,800 modem," says David Shute, president of Bison Tales Publishing Co. in Woburn, Mass. He is a multimedia publisher who uses Ascend ISDN gear for Internet access and to transmit audio recordings. Taking a cue from Sinatra, Shute intends to use his ISDN lines to record music in real-time virtual jam sessions, with participants spread all over the country.

Being a digital connection, ISDN has no "call setup time," or the time it takes the modems to dial the phone and synchronize themselves. "With ISDN, I can get on-line in about five seconds, as opposed to about 35 seconds with traditional modems," says David Goodman, an ISDN consultant in New York City. This makes it ideal for telecommuters, who make frequent calls from their home offices and can be quickly connected.

These faster rates come in handy for many applications, including browsing the graphics-intensive World Wide Web. "I can surf the Web at least as twice as fast as with traditional modems, and handle a lot more on-line information," says Tittel.

ISDN is also ideal for remote computing needs, again because large data files move faster between two computers. This comes in handy for sending audio files or when a doctor needs to view an X-ray chart from the hospital on her home PC.

What will it cost? ISDN Installation charges can cost from $150 on up, depending on how much work is required to wire your line. The monthly service charge for the ISDN line itself ranges from $25-$50, depending on whether you are a residence or a business customer and where you are located (Customers of Pacific Bell and Bell Atlantic pay less, others more). In some areas, there is a per-minute ISDN charge in addition to the usual connect charges. Equipment costs ranges from $300 to $1,500, depending on whether you're wiring one computer or many. Some of this equipment comes with a built-in Network Termination-1 (NT-1) device, which provides electrical power to the ISDN line). Others require a separate device, which can add another $150 to the overall cost.

Smith at the Watsonville law firm found out about NT-1s (or the lack thereof) the hard way. The firm's plan was to connect attornies in their Watsonville and Salinas offices. But for months the installed 3Com and Digiboard gear did not work properly. Suddenly a bell went off. "All of us (staff, consultants, and phone company representatives) realized that no one installed the NT-1," Smith said. "Until then, I guess they all thought it was somewhere else in the building."

Add up all these expenses and you'll quickly realize that ISDN ain't cheap, especially when you consider that 28.8K bit/sec, modems cost about $500 a pair. However, higher-speed T-1 lines can be $1000 per month or more, and this is where ISDN's niche may be.

So why isn't ISDN more popular? Several reasons. Getting the line ordered and setup properly is still spotty, especially in the Northeast and mountain states. In order to obtain ISDN service, your home or business needs to be connected to a digital "central office," the place that provides your local phone service. Many of these central offices still have analog equipment, and can't do ISDN. How can you tell? Call the special ISDN number at your local phone company (see below) or Intel's ISDN hotline (800- 538 3373 x21) and ask. (Intel keeps track of ISDN central offices around the country, because they sell a video conferencing product that works over ISDN lines.)

You'll also need new data communications hardware to speak ISDN, and getting it setup isn't easy. Tittel and Goodman have plenty of horror stories about line provisioning, where parameters that the phone company needs for initial setup were incorrectly specified. Shute's problem was different. His ISDN line was up and running within a few days, but Nynex "switched equipment in our central office, thereby rendering my settings inoperative."

Troubleshooting this advanced service from the phone company can be difficult, given that many phone company representatives don't have adequate knowledge about ISDN, data communications equipment, data applications or all three. "If Nynex wants to get serious about ISDN, it must train and deploy a hundred times more knowledge within its own ranks than it currently has," says Shute.

There is also the issue that because the line is digital, you can't just pick up the phone and hear a dial tone to determine whether you have service or not. "The two biggest obstacles are Nynex and Nynex," says Shute. "You need your line number, your trouble ticket number, the type of equipment used in the central office and the favorite type of flowers of the harried service representative," he says.

Larry Rupard had problems with his new area code. Rupard is a network analyst with St. Mary's Health Systems in Knoxville, Tenn. who uses Gandalf ISDN gear to connect outside doctors to their hospital computer systems, and Cicso routers for ISDN connections to the Internet. "Our biggest problem was that Bell South doesn't follow their own rules for line identification, we had to figure it out on our own."

Many phone company reps do go the extra mile: "Pacific Bell was more than willing to help me troubleshoot. I called them on a Friday evening at 8 pm, and within 30 minutes they had Ascend, our ISDN equipment vendor, on a conference call with me and one of their field technicians. They stuck it out even though it was Ascend's problem," said Goodman. But not everyone is satisfied with Pacific Bell: "We are only 45 minutes south of San Jose, but apparently Pac Bell doesn't have any local expertise here," says Smith.

Finally, you need to have ISDN service at both ends of your data connection, and at all points along the way. This gets tricky, especially if you will be making either a local or a long-distance call that may not have a complete digital end-to-end path. How can you tell? If it works, you know you are 100% digital. Otherwise, you can't.

Where to get help? Goodman suggests to "get a single point of contact if your phone company will do that. In California, for example, the Internet provider can order your router, phone service, and setup your ISDN line and Internet connection, which is a big plus." Smith suggests "spending our dollars wisely on those consultants that have the prior experience rather than be their guinea pigs." Shute says choosing only those consultants that actually use ISDN themselves. Rupard did his own ISDN installation: "We found that most consultants know the buzz words and not much else."

The Internet itself has several places that provide help: the comp.dcomp.isdn newsgroup is one place, "although you'll have to wade through a lot of junk," says Goodman. And Dan Kegel's ISDN page on the Web is another good resource, along with Bruce Robertson's ISDN page

Okay, you're convinced. You want ISDN now. How long does it take, assuming you have digital service and you can find the right person in your phone company that can order it for you? "Four weeks," said Goodman. "The longest time was getting the ISDN equipment ordered and setup." Smith said it took "two months to coordinate vendors and acquire equipment and phone service. "We went through a month of vendors pointing fingers at each other and trying to obtain technical information." Be patient and persistent, and maybe you'll be singing your own data duets.

For more information on ISDN, call your local phone company:

Nynex, 800 438 4736
Bell Atlantic 800-204-7332
Bell South 800-428-4736
Pacific Bell 800 472 4736
US West 800-246-5226
Southwest Bell 800-SWB-ISDN