Metcalfe's Column: Skip G.lite and get on with all-optical Net

Telephone-company executives are still reeling from their hasty introduction of the Princess telephone in 1959.

So it's understandable that to date, telcos have installed 100,000 digital subscriber lines (DSLs) on their copper -- far less than the one million cable television modems (CTMs).

It goes back to 1957, when AT&T announced a "bedroom phone" with a light for nightstands. But after Sputnik, in two years flat, AT&T repositioned the Princess telephone as a "woman's phone" in four entirely new colours, despite scant evidence that housewives wanted to use telephones.

Such bold, Bell-ringing dynamism.

How could they have known Princess colours would open the public's eyes to telephone choice? And there followed the FCC's Carterfone decision in 1968, AT&T divestiture in 1984, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the DSL Interoperability Showcase at SuperComm99 in Atlanta.

Older but wiser, members of the United States Telephone Association (USTA) are not rushing into always-on, high-speed Internet access to homes, many of which still don't have Princess telephones.

USTA makes a big show of technology developments, standards making, market trials, deployment plans, and interoperability showcases. Meanwhile, it lobbies and litigates to deter competition.

To treat my hard-earned bias against telco monopolies, I attended the Universal Asymmetric DSL Working Group (UAWG) Interoperability Showcase at SuperComm99. More than 30 telephone equipment vendors demonstrated compatible combinations of customer premises and central office equipment using a new ADSL variant called G.lite. Lite is intended to accelerate deployment of always-on, high-speed Internet access to homes.

At a press conference, UAWG declared victory with G.lite and disbanded. UAWG was founded by Compaq, Intel, and Microsoft in January 1998. G.lite will henceforth be taken up by the ADSL Forum (www.adsl.com).

Despite their denials, I think Compaq, Intel, and Microsoft are bailing out of G.lite. They have no reason to care whether DSLs beat CTMs. Perhaps they're starting to agree with me that G.lite doesn't work all that well, or that telcos are not great partners.

The most convincing part of the UAWG press conference was Compaq's disclosure that it has shipped 100,000 Presarios with G.lite ADSL modems. These were combo cards including V.90 dial-up modems (56Kbps), full-rate ADSL (8Mbps down and 768Kbps up), and G.lite ADSL (1.5Mbps down and 384Kbps up).

I wonder how many people will keep on using V.90, or jump to full-rate ADSL, rather than compromise on G.lite ADSL. I kept hearing that the Internet can operate at up to about 400Kbps, so V.90 and ISDN are too slow, full-rate ADSL is too fast, and G.lite is just right.

Well, I don't buy this, nor am I enthusiastic about ADSL -- full-rate or lite. Even the ADSL Forum says it's diversifying and should probably be called the DSL Forum. Sounds like the (A)DSL Forum is bailing out of G.lite, and maybe even ADSL too. It denies this vehemently. Today's alphabet soup of DSLs includes HDSL, ADSL, SDSL, VDSL, MVL, SuperLine, and EtherLoop. There will be many more flavours of DSL before we're through.

Too many G.lite proponents think homes will each have one Compaq-Intel-Microsoft PC. They offer DSL cards with Windows support. How will a home's several non-Windows computers be connected?

ADSL fans are about to discover that even more important than high-speed Internet access is always-on Internet access. They will be surprised by new applications that are only practical with always-on access.

Soon, we'll realise that CTMs and DSLs are copper retrofits promoted by monopolies that own a lot of cooper. We're going to start encouraging competition to bypass old Bell copper by deploying the all-optical Internet.

Bob Metcalfe has been a technology pundit since 1990. He's sorry about picking on the Bell and Microsoft monopolies, especially since he started picking on Linux. Do you have any insights about DSLs vs CTMs? Send them to metcalfe@idg.net

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