ISDN Is Still Difficult to Network

(Originally written 31 Jan 96, revised 31 Dec 96)

According to lots of trade press, ISDN is ready to take off as a speedy Internet access on-ramp solution. After trying it myself, I have to state flatly that it ainít gonna happen until phone companies and Internet providers work more closely together. Sure, it is fast: about five times the effective throughput of a 28.8 connection. But ISDN Is Still Difficult to Network properly, it still doesnít work well, standardization efforts are just getting started, and there are too few Internet Service providers around that offer ISDN access. If you pass all these hurdles, it can be a very effective way to access the Internet.

I wrote the above a year ago. Since then, I have been mostly satisfied with using ISDN as my primary Internet access method, using the Farallon Netopia router and UUnet's ISDN service here in the land of Nynex. Why "mostly"? Well, once you get ISDN access, you'll find out exactly how slow the rest of the Internet can be -- during the rush hour times on the east coast (say 3:30 to 5 pm), having a speedy pipe doesn't help much and occaisionally I have to resort to using my 28.8 dial-up connection. And the cost is high -- since the closest ISDN point-of-presence is in New York City, I pay Nynex about $200 a month for the time I am connected to the net -- in addition to the UUnet charges. That's alot. (Business users have to pay per call and per minute, unlike residential customers that can leave their ISDN connections up all the time for no extra charge.)

It took two months for Nynex to install the line, two weeks to start my service, and two additional weeks to iron out various other problems. All told, that isn't too bad.

If you are thinking about doing this, youíll need either a lot of spare time, a great deal of patience and persistence, or a good consultant. I took the latter route and hired David Goodman, a friend of mine who has had experience installing ISDN routers. By the way, Goodman feels I am being too pessimistic on ISDN: he says, "Yes, ISDN is inherently complex, but no more complex than networking in general. You wouldn't recommend installing a Novell or NT network without some consulting, would you?"

Youíll want to consider several things before you take the ISDN challenge:

First off, decide whether you want a router or a modem. This is a big decision and one that you want to spend some time thinking about. Unfortunately, the products arenít necessarily labeled as such to make your shopping choice easy. Basic tip: if you have to connect the ISDN device to a piece of Ethernet cabling, it is a router. If it only has a RS-232 serial port connector, it is a modem.

If you want to supply Internet connectivity to more than one machine, like me, youíll need a router. If you have a single machine at home, a modem will do just fine. If you end up getting a router, and haven't had much experience with configuring them (irrespective of ISDN), find someone who has. They have an entirely new lingo and set of skills involved.

But donít buy anything yet. Your second step is to pick your Internet access provider, hopefully one that has a ISDN point of presence (the phone number that you have to call up to get connected to your providerís network) that is a local or inexpensive call away. Find out what your providerís phone number is and ask your phone company what the per minute charges are to call it. Also ask your phone company what will be your monthly and installation charges for your service. Find out if your provider supports using both 64k lines (called bonding) or just one. Think this is a lot of work? You are right. On Long Island, there are several ISPs that have ISDN POPs, including UUnet. There are more than a year ago, which is a good sign.

Donít know where to look for a provider that does ISDN? Go to Dan Kegelís ISDN page, which is the best spot in cyberspace for a number of things ISDN, including searching for product literature and providers. Dan deserves a Big Duck Award for his efforts, and we are glad to see that he has continued to maintain and enhance this site, and even carry the latest ISDN news and happenings.

Third, after you pick your Internet access provider, make sure they tell you what ISDN devices they support. Make sure you listen to their recommendations when it comes time to purchase this equipment. Some of them will even sell you a router or a modem. As I said earlier, I was using Farallon's Netopia router. Both PSI and UUnet were familiar with it, although that took some work to find out.

Okay, you know enough to now call your phone company and order ISDN service. If your Internet provider is smart, they will have told you the secret handshakes and 15 important parameters that you need to get your line "provisioned" as this process is called. If they havenít told you this, go back to step two and pick another provider if you can. It is a good idea here to find out from your phone company what the installation and recurring charges (regardless of any actual data calls that you make) here as well. In my case, I had a hard time getting this information out of Nynex. If I don't make any calls, this is about $75 a month, mainly because I am a business customer and pay about double the residential tariffs.

Provisioning brings to mind preparing for a camping trip, and indeed this is one of the bigger stumbling blocks of ISDN. Unlike modems that you unplug from one phone line and plug into another, you have different line parameters for each piece of ISDN equipment. Any change of equipment will have a big change on your line conditioning. Still want to go through with it?

Your final step is to get your IP act in order if you haven't already: in my case, my IP network was a mess mainly because I never had to worry about it connecting to the 'net before. The whole experience also taught me a great deal about how to configure IP for Macs, Win95, NetWare and NT. By far the easiest platform to configure is the Mac. Once I upgraded all my Macs with the current version (1.1.2) of Open Transport, it is a snap.

So what happened with me? My ISDN line was installed and provisioned correctly by Nynex when they said they would -- at the beginning of January after ordering it in late October. That was fine, and a major improvement over my previous experiences with Nynex. My problems were more on the Internet side of things. For example, I had problems getting service started from PSI -- it took weeks to get my paperwork through their "system" -- unlike UUNET that had my account activated in a few hours.

Eventually, I went with UUnet mainly because their customer service at the time (last spring) seemed more helpful than PSI's. I also continue to use the Netopia router. I tried the Ascend Pipeline 50 and eventually went back to the Netopia: the user interface of the Pipeline is the pits, and while I don't spend a lot of time messing with the interface, it is frustrating enough. Farallonís router is relatively simple to setup and has a bunch of nice features if you are running a mixed Mac and Wintel network. I am looking into switching ISPs, though, since the cost of calling the UUnet NYC POP is pricey.

What about the promise of having both data channels working, giving me 128 k bps of bandwidth? Surprise, surprise: I have found that very rarely do I need all that connectivity. Yes, both channels come in handy when I transfer files via FTP, but for web browsing and email almost never do I kick off that second channel.

Does all of this strike you as too complex for normal humans? You bet. And thatís why ISDN isnít yet everymanís Internet access alternative. So if you want to go faster than 28.8, what choices do you have?

Using the cable TV network, such as @Home, come to mind. However, this technology is still being developed and in most cases cable TV lines donít go into commercial buildings yet. I am talking to Cablevision, who is using the LanCity modems here on Long Island, and will let you know what happens if I obtain their service.

How about satellite dishes? Hughesí DirectPC is shipping and available to anyone with a southwest exposure and offers fast downloads, about double the best I could get with ISDN. However, the uplink is still a dial-up connection and it requires not one but two IP addresses: one for the uplink, one for the downlink. Have trouble configuring a single IP address? Then this product isn't for you.

If you are interested in reading further about high-speed Internet access, I wrote a bunch of stuff for Windows Sources magazine's June 1996 issue, called "Breaking the Internet Speed Barrier." Most of that information is still current.

Iíve got another alternative, though. Next time you are in Boston, try to stay at the Marriott Copley Place Hotel. They have wired 35 of their seminar and meeting rooms with direct Internet access via their own Ethernet network. The network has a 100 megabit backbone and they are connected to the Internet via a 4 megabit fractional T3 line, along with mail and web serves located inside the hotel itself. These folks are serious about connectivity: all you need is your RJ45 cable to plug into their jack. Obviously, the next step is to wire some of their hotel rooms. Remember those days when you couldnít even get a phone jack? Now they have got direct to Ethernet. Nice.

This arrangement at the Marriott Copley is ideal for having Internet training seminars or just meetings when you need to have a good line to cyberspace. Those of us that have had to do these sort of things when dialed in via a modem understand how much trouble it can be to keep a connection to the Ďnet live during our presentations, and the hotel makes this a lot easier. They do charge extra for this service, but according to Sally Fodor, director of national accounts at the hotel (617 578 0612), it is less than having Nynex setup a digital line.

David Strom

+1 516 944 3407

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