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NOTE: This article is an archived copy for portfolio purposes only, and may refer to obsolete products or technologies. Old articles are not maintained for continued relevance and accuracy.
January 11, 1998

ISDN's Last Stand

It would seem that every technology pundit eventually gets around to complaining about their ISDN experience. Like end-of-year wrap-ups, columns on ISDN seem to be an unavoidable part of the gig. I swore I wouldn't do one. I figured, hey, everything's been said. But then [dim lights; play rolling thunder sounds], I had my area code split [flash and crash of lightning].

Although PacBell had been talking about splitting the San Francisco peninsula off of 415 into 650, they didn't tell their ISDN customers exactly when it would happen. I found out when my dial-on-demand Internet router stopped working. After checking and double-checking the configs (unlike analog phones, you have to program your phone number into ISDN equipment. ), I changed the ISDN directory numbers and SPIDs to use the 650 area code. Still no joy. I called PacBell's ISDN help desk, and they said that although the numbers had indeed changed, the SPIDs had not. Nor would they. Ever.

Sure enough, after changing the SPID entries in my Pipeline P-75 back to their original settings, the network worked once again. Two weeks later, everything stopped, again. "Never," apparently, isn't such a long time, as my SPIDs had been changed to the new 650 area code, again without any advance warning. After a quick reconfig, I was back on-line.

Once was comical, maybe even amusing. Twice was downright annoying. I mean, c'mon!, this is the age of digital networking! Why am I even mucking around with phone numbers, SPIDs, and switch types in the first place? DHCP gives us self-configuring LAN equipment; why can't we have self-configuring digital telephony? We've got a D channel that's always on, so surely there must be a way to have a negotiated connection that allows for plug-n-play telecommunications as well?

Well, there isn't, but there will be soon. There are several technologies currently being worked on by BellCore and the equipment vendors that will provide this capability within the next couple of years. Most important, some of them even work.

But will it matter? Two or three years is a long time. ISDN has failed to hit mainstream status, despite a variety of benefits. ISDN seems to be permanently stuck in early-adopter mode.

Part of this is due to the technical configuration issues, making ISDN too difficult for your average man-on-the-street. Another part of this comes from the low price-performance horizon that ISDN carries. My monthly ISDN bill (including the ISP charges) is well over $400 per month. That's just too high for 128k of bandwidth (although my usage is very high, and probably exceeds ISDN's design objective).

Of these two problems, I believe that the issue of ISDN being hard-to-use is probably the more pressing. My mother installed a second voice line for her Internet connectivity rather than mess with the equipment and configuration issues surrounding ISDN. My guess is that she is more like the market than I am. There is a real, identifiable, justifiable need to make using ISDN a simple, plug-n-play experience.

Five Cards

To wit, there are five action areas that are promising a simplified ISDN experience. Some of these efforts are non-technical procedural changes, while others are radical departures from the ISDN standard that exists in the USA now.

Most of these efforts are addressing the issue of SPIDs (Service Profile Identifiers). For those of you who don't know about SPIDs, they provide certain call-handling and routing capabilities to the devices at a customer's location. It is important to note that SPIDs are unique to North America. Europe does not have SPIDs, and as a result they already have plug-n-play ISDN. However, they do not have the advanced call handling capabilities that we do. In order for them to do things like conferencing and the like, they must use a PBX or another intelligent system at their premise. We get this stuff from the switch essentially for free because of SPIDs.

SPIDs are indeed a nightmare (as I saw when I went through the area code split), but they are not the only issue. There are many, many technical areas of ISDN configuration that need to be addressed before it can be a plug-n-play type of solution. Currently, a user also has to identify the phone numbers in use, the make and model of switch in use in their neighborhood, and even whether or not a line is configured to accept voice, data, or both types of traffic. Until the need for these details is obviated, ISDN simply won't make it as a mainstream technology.

Too Little, Too Late?

These enhancements are all great news, but are probably too long in coming. Although Parameter Downloading would make using ISDN as easy as using analog phone service (in theory anway), it isn't going to be widely available for at least two years, and probably for three. Even then it will still be a read-only specification. What's really needed is a bi-directional negotiation protocol that allows the equipment to tell the switch what features it wants. This is going to be even longer in coming, since the telcos, who charge on a per-feature basis, probably won't let equipment and users add/delete features on an ad-hoc basis for a long, long time.

Regardless, even just looking at the two year window we see that there is a serious threat to ISDN's acceptance as a mainstream technology on the lines of analog service and cable television. By this time, cable modems, data-over-power grid, satellite and xDSL will likely have significant infrastructures in place, and will have proven (or disproven) themselves as reliable alternatives to telco-based communication technologies.

If, within that two or three years, any one of these competing technologies offer better price/performance and are easier to configure, then ISDN will fail to become as pervasive as it could have. Let's face it: ISDN just hasn't hit mainstream status. The only people I know who use it are professionals who can comfortably be classed into the technology-enthusiast or early-adopter markets. Telecommuters are the driving factor in the latest wave of buyers, but they're not choosing this solution; rather, it is being chosen for them by an early-adopter at their office, and only because there are no viable alternatives.

This is changing. My brother in Tennessee is enthusiastically ordering high-speed cable modem service, and for a measly $40-a-month, flat. A friend near me here in Northern California is playing with DirecPC and loving every minute of it. These technologies are real, offering better price/performance, and better ease-of-use. Over the next two or three years, they will only become more viable, taking more opportunities away from ISDN.

Having said all that however, the one key benefit that ISDN has over these other technologies is the unique ability to deliver high-quality telephony services as well as data. Advanced call management features such as those found in ISDN provide users with Jetson-esque PBX capabilities from home, using the intelligent switching fabric. Cable modems, satellite, data-over-power-grid and other high-speed data services don't offer any voice capabilities at all.

However, even this may change. With the advent of bigger pipes and better encryption, voice-over-IP may be a realistic alternative to telco voice services inside of two years. This is the biggest concern to the RBOCS: If these data networks are able to provide low-cost voice services, then what advantage is there to using the telco's network at all?

This is probably why the telcos are pushing the FCC to revisit per-minute charges for data service providers. Although defeated once when the FCC "tentatively concluded that providers of information services (including Internet service providers) should not be subject to the interstate access charges that local telephone companies currently assess on long-distance carriers," the subject is coming up for discussion again.

Perhaps rather than try to make competing technologies expensive, providers should work to make ISDN (and other services like fractional-T1) cheaper. That combined with ease-of-use would help to boost ISDN's acceptance in a larger mainstream market. Oh, and it needs to be done this year, not sometime in the next millennium.

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Copyright © 2010-2011 Eric A. Hall.
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