ISDN: An ‘Irrelevant’ Technology About to Open Up the Future

STEWART ALSOP, a long-time observer of the personal computer industry, is editor-in-chief of San Mateo-based Info World magazine and the founder and publisher of P.C. Letter

I’m driving up the on-ramp to the information highway. Next week, I’m having ISDN installed at my house, and I thought I’d share the experience with you as a historical anecdote. It just may be like it was for our grandparents when they got their first telephone or for our parents when they got a color television. You know: “Hey, Martha! Want to come over and see my ISDN?”

ISDN is one of those old new technologies. It was introduced 10 years ago as a way for telephone companies to give us a relatively high-speed connection between our computers--really more for business than anything else.

But it’s taken so long to get anywhere with ISDN that most people have decided it is irrelevant. Indeed, techno-people like to joke about what ISDN stands for. It means Integrated Services Digital Network , but wisecrackers label it I Still Don’t kNow or It Still Does Nothing . It’s been around that long.

ISDN is rarely mentioned in the popular press when the information highway is being discussed. Instead, most people focus on cable-related technologies or the Bell Atlantic technology developed for sending full-screen video across telephone wires, or even the new ATM (Adaptive Transfer Mode) as the foundation of the information highway.


But the truth is that ISDN is the first thing that’s going to come along that begins to give people a taste of what the future will be like.

Here in California, several factors have come together suddenly to make ISDN a hot new technology, so to speak.

First, the state Public Utilities Commission has approved a new pricing scheme for ISDN that means you can get it for as little at $22.95 a month (if you don’t use it for business and only use it nights and weekends).

Second, Pacific Bell has embraced this price structure in a program called ISDN Everywhere. So now when you call your local PacBell office and say you want ISDN, they’ll reply, “Yes! When do you want the line installed?” Previously, the response ranged from “Shut your mouth!” to “Huh?”

Third, both PacBell and GTE have steadily been adding the equipment to their telephone networks, and that allows people to get ISDN connections pretty easily. Today, ISDN is directly available on about 60% of PacBell’s network, and the company can offer it on the other 40% with a little extra work. GTE says 77% of its network will be ISDN-capable by the end of this year.

Fourth, corporations have begun to adopt the concept of remote-access technology, which makes it easier for people to use their computers whether they are in the office, at home or traveling. And ISDN is the best way to make those remote connections from home.

All of these developments together mean that ISDN is becoming affordable, available and useful--all prerequisites for turning a technology from theory into reality.

At least in Silicon Valley, where I live, ISDN at home is now way cool for leading nerds and executives, something like what it was to be one of the first people to have a cellular car phone about five years ago. If you go to a party in the valley and talk about your ISDN connection, it’s hard to fight off the admirers.

Senior technical and management executives at companies such as Sun Microsystems and Silicon Graphics are now being supplied with ISDN lines so they can work at home at the kind of speed they are used to having at work.

The last thing I want is to be left behind. And it turns out that the company I work for has already installed ISDN in the office, to allow us to send files to our printer in Illinois. So we’ve ordered an ISDN line for my house.

When it’s installed, I’ll be able to connect with my office network at about 10 times the speed that would be possible by dialing in through a standard modem. So what, you ask? That means I get the immediate benefit of responding instantaneously to my e-mail and that I can do from home the collaborative work that usually waits until I arrive at the office.

But this is just the beginning, which is why I say I’m driving up the on-ramp.

There are already several products for holding a video conference using ISDN. When I have my line installed and my computer set up, I’m going to get the software to do video conferencing. Then I’ll be able to call up my favorite technology executives and interview them from my home.


Next, I’ll get my mother to buy the same stuff (total cost--including the PC and extra hardware: about $5,000 and declining rapidly) and I’ll be able to chat with her regularly while actually seeing how she looks.

And sometime next year, I’ll be able to put what’s called a cable modem in my other PC and plug my television cable into the computer. With that hookup, I’ll be able to watch TV on my PC, record shows and capture images of famous or important people.

More significantly, when my local cable company has the service--probably in 1996--I’ll be able to use that connection to get to the Internet--gaining access to video services, electronic shopping and other applications that require high-speed interactivity.

Perhaps a year later, for about $500, I’ll be able to put a small satellite dish on the balcony outside my den; that will let me order movies interactively through my television.

The tough decision will come sometime in the year 2000. Will I want to wire together my PCs, my television and my telephones--all digital by then--on a local network so that I can order those satellite movies from my original PC, or should I hold the ISDN video conference on my television?

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Today I’m still driving onto the on-ramp. By then I’ll be accelerating past the speed limit into the fast lane.