ADSL, a lightning-fast internet access technology that could make clicking through web pages as easy as flipping through a book, might be widely available to your schools by this fall.

ADSL (short for “asymmetric digital subscriber line”) has been hailed as one of the most exciting developments in connectivity in years, offering zippy speeds over standard telephone lines at reasonable costs.

Larry Plumb, director of media relations for Bell Atlantic’s internet services, said ADSL could be a significant option for school districts. “By increasing bandwidth, you can incorporate more video, graphics, and movement into the medium,” he said. “These applications play a role in helping students become excited about learning and technology.”

Also, Plumb noted, higher bandwidth means faster download time for web pages, so more time can be spent in the discovery process. “Time is at a premium in a 40-minute class,” he noted.

Heretofore, ADSL hasn’t been quite ready for national use. But now, Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel have all joined forces with the regional Bell operating companies (rBOCs) to develop a single ADSL standard, which would satisfy the demand for faster, affordable internet access. Meanwhile, U.S. West has announced plans to offer ADSL to its subscribers in 40 cities across 14 states by the end of June.

ADSL explained

ADSL would allow connection speeds up to 30 times faster than the fastest modems commonly available. Because ADSL works over regular telephone lines, it’s expected to be cheaper and easier to install than the two better-known means of getting a high-speed hook-up to the internet‹specialized lines, such as the T1, and cable modems.

Digital subscriber line (DSL) technology increases the rate at which data can travel across regular copper phone lines. ADSL is one type of DSL technology, called “asymmetric” because it offers a faster connection to your desktop (the direction techies call “downstream”) than from your desktop (“upstream”). Currently, ADSL can support downstream rates of up to 1.5 Mbps. By comparison, ISDN lines allow speeds of “only” 128 Kbps.

ADSL is not a new technology. But previously, it was very expensive. Because technicians had to install voice-data splitters at each customer’s location, telecommunications companies would charge more than $250 per month for ADSL.

Now, a new “splitterless” technology is being developed that would eliminate the necessity of a house call and make ADSL access as easy as buying a DSL modem, for about $200. Because of the lower installation and service costs made possible by splitterless DSL, or DSL “lite,” monthly ADSL service is expected to run as low as $40 per month.

Universal ADSL working group

In tandem with the arrival of splitterless technology, some of the biggest companies in the computer industry have thrown their support behind ADSL. Microsoft, Compaq, and Intel have teamed up with the five Bell companies, as well as GTE, Sprint, and numerous networking technology companies to form a consortium called the Universal ADSL Working Group (UAWG).

UAWG officially launched on Jan. 26. The group’s goal is to develop a single standard that would accelerate the deployment of ADSL technology to thousands of users. Having a single standard would enable an ADSL modem to communicate through any network. In current ADSL technologies offered throughout the country, the equipment used in one place is not necessarily compatible with the hardware used elsewhere.

Industry analysts are saying that such broad support from the telecos and the computer industry might be just what is needed to push ADSL into widespread use. “[UAWG has] all the major players,” said Barbara Ells, an analyst with the internet watching Zona Research Inc. “It’s a great step forward for internet access.”

U.S. West jumps in

Some telecos already are promising splitterless ADSL service by the end of the summer. U.S. West announced it would make ADSL available in 40 cities among its 14 states within the first half of the year, using a version of ADSL technology that does not conform to the standard that UAWG is developing.

Mike Roulea, vice president of marketing for U.S. West, said his company will use a technology known as Multiple Virtual Line (MVL) because, he said, it solves all the deployment problems UAWG hopes its standard will solve, plus it’s available in the near term.

“We’ll use this system because it’s available now, and it’s the only thing I’ve seen that can work like today’s modems from the customer perspective,” Roulea said. If UAWG comes up with a standard by year’s end and equipment becomes available, Roulea said, then U.S. West will use that equipment as well.

The problem with waiting, Roulea said, is the tremendous demand for faster internet access. Users simply can’t wait until a new standard is developed and new equipment is put up for sale.

Other telecos may follow U.S. West’s lead.

Bell Atlantic spokesman Plumb said his company is pushing to make ADSL available by third quarter 1998‹whether a standard has been developed or not.

“There’s such a huge demand for more bandwidth,” he said. “We certainly would like a standard technology, but at the same time, we’d like to make ADSL available as soon as we can.”

One big “if”

One characteristic of the technology might keep some remote school districts from reaping its benefits. ADSL can operate only on lines that have relatively short runs (typically less than 20,000 feet) to the phone company’s central office.

Plumb said that “rate-adaptive” technology‹in which the signal is sent out in 64 Kb chunks‹could help increase ADSL’s range to some extent, but he acknowledged that many schools in rural areas would not have access to ADSL. “My best guess is that between 60 and 90 percent of our customers would be eligible for ADSL service,” he said.

Despite its geographical limitations, the potential for ADSL might be enormous. With a theoretical upper limit of 8 million Bps, ADSL connections one day could transmit the complete works of Shakespeare to your schools’ computers in under five seconds‹and all you’d need is a special modem and a service provider.

Universal ADSL Working Group

http://www.uawg.org

U.S. West

http://www.uswest.com

Bell Atlantic

http://www.bell-atl.com