Internet in an instant

Fast food, drive through bottle shops, just in time manufacturing, speed cleaning, one hour processing: we live in an age of instant gratification. There is no time to grind the beans and brew the coffee, just pour on the water and consume. Tasteless, maybe; fast, certainly. Now we want the same instant access to the Internet, only we want the speed and the quality.

According to Nielsen/Net ratings, Australians who regularly use the Web from home (and there were 3.9 million of us in June), access the Internet 11 times a month, visit 15 Web sites and spend around six and a half hours online. There is clearly a huge de-mand for Internet access, and that demand is rising week by week.

One of the frustrations of the Internet, however, is speed and cost. It is a rare home user who can afford to maintain an Internet connection 24x7. For one, other people in the household may wish to use the telephone, and can't while the PC is hooked up to the Internet. For two, being online all day every day is an expensive business.

Yet sometimes, when downloading an overloaded email or accessing a graphics rich site, it feels like the user has been online all day - to very little effect and at considerable cost.

For small businesses which consider offering an online service, the sheer cost of having its employees permanently online can be a deterrent.

One possible solution being marketed to home and business users of the Internet is an overlay technology which will deliver faster, cheaper access to the Internet, and allow a telephone call and an Internet connection to co-exist on a single telecommunications line.

The technology is called digital subscriber line services, and it is first being marketed by Telstra which is offering a version of DSL called asymmetric, or ADSL, a middle of the road DSL service. Touted through the 1990s as a way to offer cheaper faster Internet access, DSL runs over the twisted copper pairs that link most homes and businesses to the national telecommunications network.

Speeds of up to 8Mbps to the user are possible, alongside upload speeds of 1Mbps. Admittedly this is not as fast as cable modems and their 30Mbps download capabilities, but the advantage is that DSL technologies don't require special cabling, and a phone call and Internet session can still run simultaneously on existing systems.

Internationally there are now 1 million users of DSL services according to the global association supporting the technology, the DSL Forum.

In the US, which is leading the charge with DSL, and Australia the key triggers for the long awaited arrival of these services were the decisions taken by US and Australian Government authorities to finally allow competition in the local loop.

Previously Telstra, and the local telecommunications carriers in the US, had an effective monopoly over this loop. Although DSL was acknowledged as a way of providing faster, cheaper Internet access, there was little incentive to actually deliver on that promise. Telstra could continue to offer timed Internet access through its Big Pond offerings, or for those prepared to pay the price, cable modem access over its broadband network.

But once the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission decided to allow competition on the local loop in mid 1999, Telstra knew it would have to compete more vigorously and prepared to launch Big Pond ADSL which it finally did this August.

For a home user who is a pre-selected Telstra customer, the cost of a Big Pond ADSL service runs to $78 a month. It is $5 cheaper a month for a business user. There is a premium charged for homes and businesses that are preselected to another telecommunications carrier.

Prices will fall rapidly as other telecommunications companies gear up to offer their own DSL services, and the cable companies respond to what is a direct assault on the cable modem business.

Initially available in the state and territory capitals, and a handful of other regional centres, Telstra's ambition is to make the service available to around 90 per cent of the country's homes and businesses by 2002.

It has been a long time coming, but it looks like instant Internet is now a real possibility.

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Beverley Head

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