July 9, 1995 in Features

You Thought Call-Waiting Was Special? Single Phone Line Turns Home Into ‘Techno-Center’

Todd Copilevitz Dallas Morning News

It’s the stuff of science-fiction movies, television commercials and “The Jetsons”: video telephones, remote control of an entire house, film libraries on the computer.

If you have a telephone, you can have it all right now, thanks to a new phone service called Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN.

It’s the first revolution in residential telephone service in 100 years, and the fact that it exists may come as a surprise to most users. “It will, quite simply, change the way we live, learn and work,” says Karen Fitzgerald, director of ISDN products at Bellcore, the research division of the regional phone companies.

Through the existing telephone lines in virtually every house, customers can now get ISDN. The wiring doesn’t change, but the new connection explodes all the old ideas of what a telephone can do.

Take, for example, the dial tone: It’s gone, replaced by a fake dial tone made by the phone just to let customers know it still works. Calls connect anywhere in the world in less than two seconds. The sound is CDquality clear.

With ISDN, a basic phone line connected to a single handset can have as many as 64 telephone numbers and can use features common on business switchboards such as parking calls until a line comes free, multiple holds and conference connections.

Using a single ISDN connection, Wendell Hernandez of Flower Mound, Texas, has six phones, each assigned a different number for each of the six members of his household.

“No more guessing who the call will be for,” he says. “If it’s not my phone that rings, I don’t worry about it.”

Using a new generation of modems, computers can connect to services at unprecedented speeds, up to nine times faster than an average 14.4 modem. At that speed, pulling up a video clip, sound file or photo library is as easy as reading electronic mail.

Over a single ISDN line, users will be able to have a voice call and send computer information simultaneously. That allows users to call a friend while logging on to their favorite on-line service or sending a fax.

Video conferencing from a computer would make it possible to talk to the boss “in person” while working at home. Remote health care would let doctors check your kid’s case of chicken pox without your spending a moment in an office and allow people on heart monitors to have someone hundreds of miles away constantly watching for trouble.

Using an ISDN connection, you could turn on lights at home, set the thermostat, even fill the bathtub from anywhere, without making a phone call. For now, that capability, along with many of the others, costs thousands of dollars. But as ISDN becomes more popular, the prices will drop sharply, experts say.

“It sounds like we’re talking about blue-sky stuff,” says Paul Brant, assistant vice president of Northern Telecom’s ISDN division. “But the technology exists today, so it’s really an issue of making it affordable and getting the services out there to drive demand.”

The hardest part may be getting customers to appreciate how important the new service is, says Jay Duncanson, co-founder of Ascend Communication, a California-based maker of ISDN equipment. “Imagine if we replaced the interstate system with something entirely new. It gets you there faster, more reliably and makes all sorts of wonderful new things possible,” he says. “That’s what ISDN does for telephone service.”

At its core, ISDN is nothing more than the digital language computers speak - ones and zeros. But for nearly a century, telephones have been analog, sending sound waves through millions of miles of copper wires.

“Alexander Graham Bell would still understand the concepts of the phone we talk on today,” says Clayton Nash, area manager for Southwestern Bell in Dallas. “There’s nothing really new about the way we send calls over copper wire.”

Analog signals, however, weaken and become distorted over distance. Digital signals, by comparison, are hard to distort so calls race along faster, free of interference and taking much less space on the wire.

A basic ISDN home line is actually three channels, each capable of carrying information. Two of the channels, called B channels, can support voice and high-speed data.

Each channel can be used individually, allowing two calls (either voice or data) simultaneously. Phone calls sound clearer, and computer connections zip along at 64,000 bits per second, more than four times the speed of a 14.4 modem.

Or the two B channels can be linked (“bonded,” in the language of ISDN), creating the ability to transfer 128,000 bits per second. At that speed, video conferencing becomes possible. Officials compare bonding channels to drinking a soda with two straws instead of one.

The third ISDN channel, D channel, is used mostly for behind-the-scenes signaling from the equipment to the phone company. But it’s capable of supporting new services, such as constant monitoring of a home security system, remote health care monitoring or the remote control of a house.

“With ISDN you’ve got so much flexibility, just getting all the pieces in order can be a major headache,” Fitzgerald says. “The challenge on the service providers is to simplify the process. They’ll have to if this is going to make it big.”

The phone companies weren’t expecting the demand they found from Internet enthusiasts.

But the feature that will drive demand for ISDN will be video, experts say. For the first time, consumers will be able to take a video call, or easily look at short video clips from an on-line service.

Schools will use ISDN video systems to connect with home-schooling and rural students, Fitzgerald says. In California, Pacific Bell is wiring every school and library with ISDN lines. Universities are working on projects to link their experts with classrooms through the computer/video connections.

“For years we’ve been talking about merging video and communication. Now it’s here, just waiting to be used,” Fitzgerald says.

Already the commercial on-line services are readying for ISDN connections. Prodigy started tests this spring in four cities, selling a $495 package that includes an IBM modem and installation charges for the ISDN phone service.

“I don’t think you can really appreciate what an on-line service can do until you’re logged on at ISDN speed,” says Prodigy spokesman Brian Ek. “Now the rubber really hits the road.”

The increased speed means the services can deliver more audio and video files, says Pierce Reid, spokesman for CompuServe, which is now offering limited ISDN access.

“Instead of looking through the paper to see what movie you want to go to, you can log on and pull up clips from several films to help you decide.”

For that matter, telephone laboratories are looking to the day when people won’t leave home to see the latest films, says Northern Telecom’s Brant.

“We’re experimenting with systems that will let you download an entire movie from the Internet, load it onto a CD-ROM, then watch it on your television,” he says. “It’s hard to imagine, but it’s happening.”

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