After All These Years...ISDN

by Charles A. Gimon


(InfoNation Logo)

Old hands in the world of computer communications can remember when the speed on the modem at their school or office went from 110 to 300 baud. What a jump into the future that was! Later, more of us remember moving ahead from 300 to 2400, and more recently, most of us can remember replacing a 2400 baud modem with one that could go 9600, 14400 or 28800.

Today's fastest modems are pushing the speed limit on the an analog phone call. Home computing power is growing exponentially, and Internet connections are creeping into every corner of the globe, but that last link from cyberspace into your den is the same old phone line your grandparents use.

The next step up from today's modems needs an upgrade to your phone line. That upgrade is ISDN--Integrated Services Digital Networking. The irony is that people have been working on ISDN since before most people who are on-line today got their first modems. It's taken a geologic age, but it looks like ISDN may finally be arriving as a choice for the average guy, or at least the average guy with a modem.

If you want to link your home computer with the rest of the world, ISDN has an obvious logic to it. Information inside your computer is digital, and information going over phone company cables and Internet backbones is digital--why should you have to translate that digital signal from your computer to an analog signal, when the phone company's just going to translate it back to digital again? That POTS line in your wall (POTS meaning Plain Old Telephone Service) is the last bottleneck between you and seamless Internet enjoyment, among other things.

ISDN in your own home will probably mean a BRI--Basic Rate Interface--also known as a 2B+D connection. 2B+D means two main "B" channels and a smaller "D" channel for signaling. You can use one B channel for a regular voice phone call at the same time you use the other B channel for a modem call, or you can "bind" the two B channels together for one mighty fast data connection. One B channel by itself will support a digital connection at 64000 bits per second, way over the 28800 of the fastest mass-market modems out there. Bind the two together, and your going at 128000.

Now, the 16550 uart chip in a PC's serial port will allow connections up to 115200. Remember a few years ago when the 16450 uart inside an older PC's serial port kept you from being able to connect a 14400 external modem there? That situation is about to happen again. Buy internal hardware, and the correct chips will be right there on the card--you can use your ISDN connection to its fullest.

Technically, you won't be using a modem anymore, but a terminal adapter. There's no more translating a digital signal into analog, no more handshaking, no more modem squeal, no waiting. Use a router instead of a terminal adapter, plus software with compression features built in, and you can boost the effective speed of your ISDN connection to as much as a stunning half a megabyte per second. That's fast enough to transfer the text of the Bible three or four times a minute. Web browsing becomes a joy; as one Usenet poster put it: "After ISDN, 28800 makes you want to get out and push". The video phone calls we've been promised for decades are possible at last. Plus you can use caller-ID and related services to route incoming calls to your phone, fax or computer automatically.

So if ISDN is so great, why has it been taking so long to break into the mainstream market? The story of USWest's painfully slow introduction of ISDN here in Minnesota has been told in several other publications, but we thought it was time for an update. InfoNation talked with Mike O'Connor and Jeff Altom at, the Twin Cities' first ISDN Internet provider.

USWest has offered some sort of ISDN since 1987, but until rather recently they viewed it strictly as a business service. Mike O'Connor told us: "First, there wasn't a tariff, so nobody could afford ISDN...last summer, if you wanted ISDN, you could pay $300 per month for a customer line. Period." They went through a long bout of pestering USWest until the current tariff was put in on February 1st of this year. "Then, there weren't any ISP's that wanted to do ISDN, so there was no place to call. Ralph Jenson and I started talking about doing gofast after i wandered around to the ISP's and asked if they were planning to do an ISDN version of their services. Nobody was interested, so gofast was born late in 1994."

Just getting connected with ISDN was a bucket of worms..."I placed some of the first orders for the new tariffed ISDN lines in january. We were thrown together with a guy named Jeff Bednark in the small business part of US West. Those orders for 4 BRI lines just about wrecked his marriage, and used up just about every favor he had coming within USWest. Orders got lost, facilities (wires to our place) were completely goofed up, people didn't know how to make the equipment work, there were changes in the tariff, there wasn't any test equipment, the installer wasn't trained. We wound up sending Jeff and his wife a dozen roses after these lines hosed up two weekend get-aways in a row for the Bednark family."

Once those first ISDN lines went in, "USWest changed it's mind. Suddenly only the suburbs could get ISDN." Jeff Altom of explains: "From a USWEST point of view, it was the business locations that could get ISDN (the downtowns, the bloomington strip, maplewood, etc.), but not too many of the residential switches (burnsville, edina, north oaks, ... and oh, also all of the inner city neighborhoods ...)."

Mike O'Connor continues: "In February, gofast started to get off the ground, so we decided to order a few more lines. That's when USWest decided that they were only going to provide ISDN out of switches that had it-- which the switch serving us didn't. Argh! We were stopped in our tracks. From that ensued the Great ISDN Rumpus of 1995 which wound up with a web page (, a bunch of faxes and email to people in state government and USWest, a resolution out of the St Paul city council, and an intervention by Steve Trimble in the state legislature, who's committee was looking at the telecomm deregulation bill. In three frenzied weeks, USWest reversed itself and coughed up a bunch of money to bring up the central city switches by the end of the year."

(Image: at work)
The people at get to work. Front to back: Jeff Altom, Mike O'Connor, Ralph Jensen.

"So now we're ready to rock...but we need more wires in here, and the cable needs to go through the yard of a person up the street (yep, we're in a residential area). No dice. So for 4 months we have a beautiful 50-pair cable that comes in to our place, but isn't connected to anything...finally gets fixed. Now we're up on a brandy-new shiny T1 carrying *lots* of ISDN channels, and more to come!"

O'Connor calls his customers "patient pioneers"..."almost none of the lines went in right at first. In fact, USWest techs used to call Ralph Jenson when they couldn't make the lines work--because we were the only people in town who knew the whole thing end-to-end." At least one of his customers is "afraid to touch his line again for fear that US West will goof it up again."

After all the bad ink they were getting, and with deregulation and new competitors possibly looming over the horizon, USWest has seen the light. By the time you read this, ISDN service should be available from six more central offices in the inner cities, and by the end of February 1996, ISDN service should be available in the entire Twin Cities metro. Jeff Altom gives them credit: "They're pretty much on is *much* better now. Lines are for the most part going in right the first time, lead times are down to around 2 weeks in many cases." Bil MacLeslie at (Vector Internet Services) agrees: "We've had incredible luck getting ISDN connections installed (I request the line, 5 days later the Installer appears, like magic!). The first install was a bit odd, USWest had different types of ISDN at each end. Sucessive installs have been flawless." The old notion that ISDN is only for businesses seems to be melting, too: USWest's main ISDN boiler room in Phoenix now answers their phone as the "Home Office Data Team". The Phoenix employees seem helpful and knowledgable, and they assured me that the ISDN info on USWest's web pages is kept up-to-date on a regular basis.

While Minnesota's ISDN service is getting up to speed, though, complaints are still finding their way into the Usenet comp.dcom.isdn group from Oregon, Utah, Arizona, and other places in USWest's 14-state service area. In some of those areas, USWest is starting to see competition. Even here in Minneapolis, sales reps from MCI have been prowling about doing advance work.

Jeff Altom told us what he knew: "As far as the Minneapolis market goes, AT&T is the only one who's filed for local service as of now...this will probably change fairly quickly over the next several months. MCI has gone agressively after other USWest cities (Seattle, Portland, Des Moines), as have some smaller alt's such as ELI (Portland & Seattle) and TCI (Denver)."

"AT&T is waiting to get 'access' rates from USWest, where USWest will charge a fee to let AT&T use it's copper base to get to customers. In other RBOC states, the access rates have been so ridiculous, that AT&T has sued the RBOC and is pursuing other transport alternatives...another alternative that AT&T is pursuing is the resale route--where they buy lots of service at bulk discounts from USWest, then resell the services under their logo...this is exactly what MCI did to AT&T back in the early-mid 1980's until they had built-up their infrastructure. It's not clear right now how this will lay out in Minneapolis, but it should be an interesting year!"

Once you've got it, how much will it cost? The prices being charged for ISDN have been even more controversial than the installation delays, and not just here in USWest country. (See the related InfoNation article by Chris Sandberg for more information.)

Right now, USWest has three pricing plans for BRI: $35 per month with a two-cent-per-minute charge that kicks in right away, $69 per month with 200 free hours before the metered charges kick in, or $184 flat rate with no extra charges. (None of those prices include taxes.) Mary Hisley, spokesperson for USWest, told us that these prices are in line with what other phone companies are charging, and the other people we spoke to generally agreed. However, consumer advocates such as Vince Hadley of Salt Lake City, Utah, feel that all those companies that have prices in that range are charging too much. Hadley: "People are shocked that USWest has had the nerve to charge such exorbitant prices for something that doesn't cost much over the price of plain old ordinary telephone service (POTS). Consider that USWest wants $184 flat rate for a basic access line (2B+D), whereas Tennessee has it at only $33 per month flat rate for the same service." Remember--putting in ISDN service in homes and businesses involves upgrading the switches at the phone company offices. The big telephone cable and microwave connections between cities and across the planet will work exactly as they did before, and those won't need any new equipment. Keep in mind, too, that your bill for ISDN service replaces your old phone bill--so people in Tennessee are getting the new ISDN upgrade without adding $50 to their monthly payment. As of this writing, Mr. Hadley is trying to get Utah's Public Service Commission to hold public hearings on USWest's ISDN tariff, which will take effect December 1st, 1995 unless enough people complain.

The cost of hardware isn't out of reach, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either. The less expensive ISDN terminal adapters have been dropping into the low $200 range ($400 has been more typical), while ISDN voice phones start at $200 and go up from there. Expect to pay a few hundred for decent hardware if you must have it now--prices will drop in the future, of course. The Motorola "Bitsurfr" terminal adapters have started showing up in mass-market catalogs; it's only a matter of time before they start being sold in hog-trough electronics warehouses.

Of course, now that ISDN looks like it's really here, people will start talking about what will replace it. In spite of a certain amount of hype for AT&T's GlobeSpan project or ATM technology, the experts we talked to agreed that ISDN should be the leading technology for the next decade or so, at least. An investment in ISDN hardware shouldn't become obsolete any faster than, well, any other computer product.

So what will ISDN mean to us, beyond lightning-fast web-surfing? Bil MacLeslie at Vector told us how companies have been buying ISDN connections for employees: "Telecommuting IS becoming a reality. We are educating the corporate environment in the positive benefits of keeping employees home for a few hours per week," since an employee at home with an ISDN line is as good as an employee on the office LAN. "Many companies are using ISDN to evaluate the need to be on the internet as a whole...The dollars invested in research are reasonable and allow a real world test. If higher speed is needed and they do upgrade, the original hardware is usually recycled to a telecommuter."

Vince Hadley laid it all on the line: "ISDN is really the first affordable service (if the telcos aren't greedy) that makes a good deal of serious telecommuting possible. The availability of this service, or lack, can affect the way people do business in many ways. Through ISDN people can really stay home and just connect up to the office to start their day. It would be cheaper than the gas to fill the car for a month, have no pollution, reduces the congestion on highways and city traffic, reduces automobile expenses, repairs, etc., reduces wear and tear on highways, and thus maintainence costs and therefore taxes, takes no time to travel to work and back home again, therefore resulting in more time to spend with the family, and reduces the stress associated with rush hour traffic. It helps to reduce these burdens, both economic, and emotional, on the community involved, and increases productivity. Through ISDN you could set up some form of video teleconferencing for most business meetings as easily as picking up a phone or sitting down to your PC...Imagine not only telling the person on the other end of the audio conversation as you describe this item or that that you need to fix you car, etc. but showing him as well. All this can be a reality through affordable ISDN. Without it we will be severely halting our growth as a community, state or nation. It could be one of the most important steps we make in our telecomunication connectivity this century."

And by the time you read this, it should be available in the 612-870-xxxx exchange in Minneapolis, where this writer lives.

There are scads of web pages relating to ISDN; here are just a few:

You can get the FAQ-list for comp.dcom.isdn by anonymous ftp from in the directory /pub/usenet/news.answers/isdn-faq.

Charles A. Gimon teaches an Intro to the PC class at the English Learning Center in south Minneapolis. He can be reached at or
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