Fiber/coax highway speeds Internet use

Fiber/coax highway speeds Internet use

Dave Powell

Following a six-month marketing and technical trial, Continental Cablevision Inc. in Boston has launched Highway1, a service offering high-speed Internet access in limited locations throughout the United States over the company`s hybrid fiber/coaxial-cable (HFC) network.

Highway1 subscribers in Needham, Wellesley and Newton, MA, can cruise the Web through LANcity Personal Cable Modems running at bidirectional top speeds of 10 Mbits/sec. Subscribers in Jacksonville, FL, can do the same through General Instrument Corp.`s surfboard cable modems, which have top speeds of 27 Mbits/sec. According to the service provider, users in Detroit should be able to subscribe this month.

The Highway1 HFC network could serve approximately 225,000 homes in New England this year and reach 500,000 homes by year-end 1997 (see figure). The service costs $59 per month, after one-time charges of $148 to $198 to install the cable modem, Highway1 software, and a PC or Macintosh network-interface card (see "For Interested Web Cruisers," page 27). The modem and network-interface card are purchased separately, which could cost at least another $500. Users do not have to subscribe to cable TV to obtain Highway1; however, Continental`s Standard Cable Television customers receive a reduced monthly fee of $49. In addition, homes not already wired for cable will incur additional setup charges, according to the company.

For this investment, subscribers obtain the latest version of the Netscape Navigator Web browser, plug-in software, a transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (tcp/ip) interface, e-mail account, file-transfer protocol, Telnet and newsgroup-access capabilities. Although the cable modems can move data at 10 to 27 Mbits/sec, Continental`s own Web site promises two-way, unlimited high-speed access up to 1.5 Mbits/sec per second to a computer [and] up to 300 kbits/sec from a computer." This conservative claim recognizes, perhaps, that the modems` ideal top speeds may not match real performance when multiple users attack shared Web servers.

In business now

"In both New England and Jacksonville, Highway1 is the first high-speed Internet-access service offered by a company," asserts William T. Schleyer, Continental president and chief operating officer. John Aronsohn, senior analyst for the Boston-based Yankee Group, agrees with the claim: "Continental is in the forefront of cable-modem deployment. Their technology promises to deliver faster Internet access than anything the phone company is offering consumers today."

Schleyer adds that the Highway1 technology "has proven itself in laboratory and field trials,...is ready for commercial deployment...and will be phased in nationally during the next 12 months." He does not mention, however, that Highway1 has enjoyed more than just the official six-month trial. The service has actually been used since 1994 by individuals and businesses in and around Perth, Australia, where it has become a business and educational tool.

Also this year, the cable-TV provider has been testing a program to give schools in the United States an even better bargain than Highway1--free high-speed access to the Internet. According to Susan Eid, a Continental vice president of corporate and legal affairs, schools will receive free Internet access as Highway1 moves into their area.

"Continental plans to provide every elementary and secondary school with a free cable modem, high-speed connection to an Internet-access provider [such as BBN Planet Corp. in Boston] and plans to wire classrooms and enhance equipment based on schools` needs," she explains.

Pilot-tested at the Pollard Middle School in Needham, MA, the educational initiative is expanding to Newton, Watertown and Wellesley, MA. "The Internet is an amazing teaching tool that gives our students access to an entire world of knowledge," says William Mead, Pollard`s technology director. "This high-speed technology allows us to download curricula, explore Web pages, and communicate with hard-to-reach parents and students in a fraction of the time."

Supporting Mead`s high opinion of HFC access to the Internet, a recent Continental survey of 2135 school administrators and educators found that 80% of those with Internet access reported heavy, regular usage. However, 30% also reported "access problems with traditional phone lines."

For Continental, entering the Internet- access business will require a $1.35 billion upgrade of the company`s nationwide HFC network. This upgrade, according to a 1995 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announcement, was mandated by a ground-breaking "Social Contract" negotiated with the FCC. Described as "an alternative form of cable-rate regulation," the contract resolved more than 350 pending rate-case hearings, lowered some of the company`s cable-TV rates and mandated approximately $9.5 million in subscriber refunds--all "without finding any wrongdoing by Continental."

In return, Continental is enjoying a less-restrictive regulatory environment. "It`s win-win-win for consumers, regulatory authorities and Continental," said Amos B. Hostetter, Jr., Continental`s chairman and chief executive at the time. "Local governments and the FCC will benefit from reducing the heavy administrative burden and high costs of regulation. And we will be able to redirect our attention from time-consuming and costly rate proceedings, to focus instead on the competitive challenges and opportunities confronting our business."

Hostetter added that the Social Contract "made major strides in encouraging investment in the information superhighway." He also complimented the FCC on its willingness to "consider alternative forms of regulation and streamline the regulatory process." But he warned that until Congress eases cable-regulation laws, the FCC will have to continue its oversight of cable providers, even though they face "increasing competition from phone companies and direct broadcast satellites," which should make outside regulation less necessary. q

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