Users sketch out ISDN's hazy future

Two words dominate the skyline for IT managers who battle the corporate bandwidth bulge: Telstra and ISDN.

The monopoly carrier gave birth to its Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) during 1987 to the sound of mixed reviews. Some claimed it was the corporate bandwidth saviour, while others claimed it wouldn't last as alternatives like frame relay and Internet Protocol (IP) grew in popularity.

Just over ten years later it seems the jury is still out on the technology's future.

ISDN's reputation is founded on the ability to offer an integrated, high-speed digital connection, usually consisting of two 64Kbit/sec copper telephone lines. The service allows simultaneous connections to voice and data networks using a telephone, PC modem or fax.

According to Telstra, its strength comes from the ability to "dynamically switch" between different video, data, telephony, fax services using multiple lines.

However, it appears the corporate user community is growing complacent about the once strong ISDN revolution.

Figures from Gartner Group's "Dataquest Demand Usage Survey" of IS managers in Australia and New Zealand reveals local users are planning to decrease their use of ISDN over the WAN in the future.

The results show the Australian IS managers surveyed expect ISDN to account for an average of 39.4 per cent of their WAN traffic in 1999, dropping from 44.3 per cent in 1998.

Respondents predict that figure will drop to 31 per cent by 2003.

Meanwhile, ISDN technology alternatives such as frame relay, satellite, ATM, fibre/HFC and radio/microwave technologies all showed increasing levels of use over the same period (see diagram).

Results for ISDN's closest competitor, frame relay, show IS managers believe it will occupy 22.2 per cent of the WAN in 1998, 33.1 per cent by 1999, and overtake ISDN in 2003 at 34.8 per cent.

Michael Biber, managing director of Asia Pacific Networx and public speaker on ISDN and ATM technologies, said while ISDN is reliable, its 64Kbit/sec and 128Kbit/sec access speeds are often insufficient for large corporate sites.

"ISDN Web connections are fine for e-mail and low-speed Web access but you can't do heavy animations, heavy graphics, image files and videoconferencing," he said. "There's a lot of people who say ISDN is too little, too late and too expensive."

In fact, pricing is shaping up as one of ISDN's biggest bugbears.

"Telstra has gone out of its way to price it as a premium service," Biber said. "It's a continuing problem because it's not competitive -- Telstra hasn't had a reason to be really sharp on the pricing."

However, Telstra is not silent on the issue, recently announcing price cuts for its OnRamp ISDN service. OnRamp was first launched in March 1997 and Telstra bills it as the replacement for its legacy semi-permanent connection (SPC) service, due for complete phase-out by 2000.

As reported in ComputerWorld (September 4, p3), Telstra sliced about 15 per cent off OnRamp access rental charges. For example, the monthly rent for customers with the 30-channel OnRamp 30 service dropped from $795 to $690.

But according to Biber: "In some cases [OnRamp] is pitched exactly the same as SPC; in other cases it's pitched as more expensive than SPC.

"Not only [is Telstra] not price competitive, its introducing a service that costs even more."

Another user concerned about pricing is Roeland Goossens, network manager at Adelaide's daily newspaper, The Advertiser. Goossens is responsible for managing the network connection between the company's CBD offices and its local printing site.

While he is happy with ISDN's reliability, "we're paying a fortune for [the SPC service] and it will not be available after 2000".

Goossens said The Advertiser paid $131,000 last year in ISDN access fees. As a result, the company is phasing out ISDN, with the recent installation of a 34Mbit/sec microwave link.

The advantage of using microwave instead of an ISDN link, he said, is the absence of access fees once the initial installation is complete.

However, beyond the pricing concerns is the attitude that nothing will change while Telstra retains its monopoly power in the ISDN market.

Commentators saw Telstra's decision to lower OnRamp pricing as a response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's recent decision to declare some ISDN services. In theory, it paves the way for potential ISDN newcomers to break Telstra's monopoly.

But Goossens remains sceptical. "They opened the market to phones and it's done absolutely nothing," he said.

Biber said "the time has passed" for another player to enter the market because of the heavy infrastructure investment required. "Optus got very close to launching a fully competitive ISDN service." Optus called a press conference to launch the service and cancelled it at the last minute, Biber said. "The [Optus] board backed away from it."

An Optus spokesperson confirmed the telco did evaluate ISDN but decided the technology was not flexible enough for its requirements. The spokesperson accused ISDN of being an "old technology" that was only limited to 128Kbit/sec or 2Mbit/sec transmission speeds. The alternative is ATM, the spokesperson said, which allows users to choose any speed up to 2Mbit/sec.

"We believe ISDN will be superseded -- and is being superseded -- by ATM."

Wayne Wilson, Optus' manager, alliance and strategy, Multinet Services, conceded ISDN is a "convenient" method of connecting customer sites to its frame relay or IP switches. "[But] we're not investing in ISDN," he said.

Despite the difficulties with competition, Kevin Bloch, author of "The Australian ISDN Guide" and manager of technology and planning at JNA/Lucent, repudiated suggestions ISDN is losing popularity.

"I think people underestimate ISDN," he said. "The highest used technology by all corporates and governments is ISDN." Bloch argues alternatives like ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), ATM and cable have years of development ahead before reaching commercial popularity.

"There is zero mass ADSL deployment anywhere in the world," he said.

"You can't buy ADSL as a package from a telco," he added, indicating ADSL is not likely to become commercially available for at least two years.

Bloch indicated ISDN is sometimes the unwitting victim of circumstance.

"Often the delay sending a packet across the network has nothing to do with the transport layer [such as ISDN]." Packets can get held up in a network's IP stack, he argued.

Ray Cao, Telstra's senior ISDN product manager, not surprisingly defended ISDN as a "good integrated solution", despite the fact it doesn't offer the fastest access speeds.

But he conceded ISDN is not facing a bright future in the high-end corporate connectivity market.

"ISDN is never going to be filling the spot of a high bandwidth service; it is a mid-bandwidth service that delivers flexibility on top of telephony," he said.

As a result, Cao revealed Telstra will launch ISDN into the residential market within 12 months.

The move may simply be seen as chasing another revenue stream, but Cao admitted ISDN is facing the difficulty of watching other technologies develop around its walls.

So what is the future for ISDN? Biber believes it will always have a role in the corporate world. But its destiny seems locked into Telstra's control -- unless another carrier accepts Cao's challenge: "The capability is there if another carrier chooses to invest itself and take it on."

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