THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : GUIDE TO INTERNET ACCESS : Going Nowhere Fast in the Fast Lane of the Information Highway : Internet: Buying the gear is one thing, getting it to work is another.


All I wanted was to go fast.

Others have more worthy aspirations. Telecommuting. Home education. Videoconferencing. Entrepreneurialism in the evenings. Me, I yearned to speed-surf.

I knew it would be a bit pricey, and a pain to set up, but that was OK. If I got ISDN, I'd be on the cutting edge. I'd be digitally connected. The Net would sense my needs and respond as fast as I could will it. I'd be wired. True bliss.

It was during the sixth solid hour on the phone to the eighth tech support engineer at the fourth telecommunications entity that that urge was replaced by a new, more compelling fantasy.

All I wanted was to get Terry, Calvin, Mark and Kent in a room together.

I'd settle for a teleconference. They could fight it out fair and square and decide whose piece of the ridiculously complex organism that made up my new Internet connection was at fault.

It was around that time that Terry of Motorola, explaining that he "never gets into reprogramming someone else's BIOS," suggested I call Toshiba. Which was around the time that I gave up for the day.

It might yet turn out to be worth it. ISDN, which stands for Integrated Services Digital Network, is currently the most affordable way to conduct high-speed telecommunications tasks from home.

While most people now use modems that transmit data at 14,400 bits per second, ISDN lets you cruise at 57,600 bps, and with the right equipment that will soon double. Traversing the World Wide Web at 14.4 is excruciatingly boring. With ISDN, you actually begin to see what all the buzz over the Internet is about.

That's one reason why phone companies like Pacific Bell, Internet access providers, consumer electronics makers and software vendors have begun promoting ISDN services. It's a potentially big business. If they ever get it together to coordinate.

My own quest for faster access started out quite smoothly. I called Pacific Bell and Rob the ISDN sales guy called back the next day. He was helpful and knowledgeable, although he dashed my hopes of saving money by getting rid of my current phone line.

A single ISDN line can handle two calls at once, voice and data as well as fax, but it's not commercially powered, so if your power goes down, you'd lose your phone service too. "We generally don't advise it," Rob said.

After checking to see that all was well with my local loop--ISDN is available in most, but not all, of PacBell's Los Angeles calling area--he referred me to Greg from Comnet, a local equipment supplier.

To Greg's credit, he is the only one to have mentioned to me the small matter of the Uart chip, which it so happens you need a certain new model of to make your ISDN line work at the speeds it's designed for. Type "MSD" at the DOS prompt to check.

Greg suggested I buy the 3Com Impact digital modem, which he has sold a whole lot of, with good results, for $499. But since there was no apparent reason not to go with Motorola's Bitsurfr for $100 less, I got him to ship that one out to me.

Rumors on Dan Kegel's ISDN home page that Fry's was selling the Bitsurfr for $250 turned out to be unsubstantiated, but it's a good place to look for information on California Internet access providers that sell ISDN service: There's also the California ISDN User's Group:

A few days later, Tony from PacBell came over, crawled under the house, drilled holes in the floor and left me a piece of paper with my very own "SPID" number on it.

My sleek black Bitsurfr arrived the next day. I followed the instructions. "Installation requires only a screwdriver," I read. Except, I learned a few pages later, for an EIA-232E 25-pin D-type cable connector. But then, pretty much everyone has a spare one of those of lying about somewhere. (I did, actually, but that was the one well-deserved stroke of luck I had from here on out).

So I adjusted the DIP switches. I plugged in the power. I configured the configuration manager and I updated the parameters. Thrillingly, the lights went on.

I loaded in the Netmanage Internet browser software that came with it. I signed up on the spot for PSI's Interramp, whose $29/month for 29 hours was as reasonable a rate as I could find.

It gave me a login and password. I hit "connect."

Nothing happened. I hit connect again. And that's when it all began to fall apart.

"I tested out the POPs in the L.A. area and there's nothing wrong with our ISDN service," said Mike from Interramp. "Try calling the telephone company and have them do a line test. I'm not sure what else to suggest."

"We'll check your line, but it sounds like a configuration problem to me," said PacBell ISDN repair.

"I'd uninstall the Netmanage software," said Motorola tech support guy No. 1. "You might want to set up a new interface from scratch."

"We've been through every setting," said Calvin from Netmanage, after de-encrypting my password and dictating me a line to add to my win.ini file. "It can't be the software. Have you talked to Motorola?"

"I don't want to dump on PSI," Motorola tech support guy No. 2 told me, "but this is not a Bitsurfr problem. Let me give you a number for PacBell."

Don't get me wrong. I grew quite fond of Calvin, who called me back twice, and I insisted on taking the private extension of the empathic Motorola tech support guy #3, who started out our session with: "You must be a Bitsurfr call. I can usually tell by the tone of the voice."

Sensing my frustration at the end of our inconclusive call, he also was the one who told me what ISDN really stands for: "I Still Don't Know."

ISDN Costs

ISDN phone line: $125 installation, deferred if line is kept for two years. Pro-rated by month if service is dropped.

Inside wiring (varies): $75

ISDN service: $24.50/month

Motorola Bitsurfr: $399

PSI Interramp set-up charge: $50

PSI monthly charge: $29 for 29 hours

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