Putting High-Speed Access to Use

BOSTON (05/08/2000) - Bruce Hall has known about digital subscriber lines for about as long as some DSL service providers have.

In 1995, as IS manager for Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta, Maine, he connected the hospital's LAN to an AS/400 server in the hospital's data center nearly four miles away.

He removed a pair of 56K-bps synchronous modems that had been running over leased copper lines between the sites and replaced them with high-bit-rate DSL (HDSL) modems.

Hall did so because HDSL was faster and it didn't cost extra. Using HDSL, he was able to boost the bandwidth to 1.5M-bps from 56K-bps, while still paying service provider Tidewater Telecom US$20 per month for the wires.

The hospital has since upgraded to a 100M-bps fiber link as its primary connection, but still uses the HDSL line as a backup, says Hall, who runs the networks for the hospital and affiliated medical groups.

Given his positive experience with the HDSL link, it's not surprising Hall went back to the DSL well when he needed an inexpensive way to tie Miles Memorial into the Maine Medical Center in Portland in order to transfer crucial radiology files between the two facilities. He never gave consideration to other high-speed access technologies such as cable modem and fixed wireless, which were not available in his area.

Using DSL instead of dial-up, download time on 5M byte-CT scan images is cut from between 30 and 45 minutes to 4 minutes or less, Hall says.

The hospitals are linked via an Internet-based virtual private network (VPN) that enables them to send data through an encrypted tunnel. Initially, Miles accessed its ISP, HarvardNet, via a dial-up modem connection, while Maine Medical Center tied in via a T-1 line. Wanting a higher-speed connection into the VPN, Hall had HarvardNet replace Miles' dialup modem connection with a 756K-bps symmetric DSL access line with a list price of $400 per month.

The only available high-speed alternative would have been a dedicated T-1 line between the two medical facilities, but that would have cost $1,400 per month, Hall says.

Furthermore, the hospital needs a fat, dedicated link to the Internet to handle its other 'Net traffic and e-mail, Hall says. So adding the DSL VPN was more efficient as well as less expensive than a T-1 line.

The DSL link also acts as the central site connection to medical offices in Waldoboro and Wiscasset, Maine. Those offices dial their ISPs and connect to the hospital via a secure tunnel. Once in, they access e-mail and use centrally located scheduling and billing applications.

Hall says the cost of the DSL link would be money well spent if the connection were just used to support these other applications. Support for faster radiology transfers is a bonus that he figures costs the hospital nothing. "A dedicated T-1 would be a touch faster, but DSL is pretty good considering it's [essentially] free," Hall says.

Where cable is king

When high-tech industry headhunter Vern Chanski wanted to simplify his company's voice and data networks, he chose cable modem service as his access technology.

Now his recruitment firm, Hobson Associates, supports all its phones and Internet access over a single coaxial cable from Cox Communications.

The move two years ago away from traditional phone carriers and ISPs has saved the firm money, streamlined communications and given it the flexibility to add or drop circuits on short notice. Hobson needed desktop Internet access for all 22 employees at its Cheshire, Connecticut, headquarters, where Chanski doubles as a partner and director of business operations.

He didn't want to arrange for extra phone lines and modems to each desk, and he also wanted to avoid the expense of frame relay or the inflexibility of a T-1 line.

Hobson now buys 21 phone circuits over the same Cox coaxial cable that carries the firm's Internet traffic on a 128K-bps data channel. If he wants more bandwidth, he can simply call Cox to order it via the same cable. Similarly, if the company needs more phones, Chanski says he just calls Cox and it can turn on more - up to a total of 30.

That is a valuable feature because the recruiting business rises and falls with the economy, he says. In the early 1990s, the company had to drop phone lines as the staff got smaller. Cost-wise, that would have been tough to do with a T-1 line.

Chanski was dissatisfied with his local and long-distance phone carriers because of slow response times for service. Cox is infinitely better, he says.

"They come when they say they will, and they stay until the problem is resolved," Chanski says. "I look at communications as a single entity. If I have a problem, I want to make one phone call."

Chanski says he was paying more than $8,000 per month for local and long-distance phone service, but with cable, costs have dropped 40 percent to 45 percent.

One drawback is that the cable modem is always on, leaving a potential security hole for hackers to access sensitive personnel data. "This would be like going into someone's hospital records," he says. A firewall protects the dedicated Internet connection, and all access is via a proxy server.

Bandwidth on cable loops is shared with other customers, but Chanski says the service to his office has never been noticeably slowed by local congestion.

"It's one of those things where the cable company has to take a hard look at it and engineer their network so there is enough bandwidth," he says.

Chanski says Cox tries harder because it is still a minor telephony player. All the extra attention has won him over. "If they offered me wireless, I'd buy that, too," he says.

Giving wireless some credit

Phil Varrichio chases bad debt for a living. Much to his surprise, his wireless service provider is helping.

Some call features and billing services provided by fixed wireless carrier Teligent actually help him get the drop on debtors who try to elude him.

Beyond that, the company he owns, Global Acceptance Credit in Arlington, Texas, gets better rates from Teligent Inc. than it did from traditional carriers such as SBC Communications Inc., AT&T Corp. and MCI WorldCom Inc., Varrichio says.

While he heard the established carriers offered deep discounts to certain customers, Varrichio was not able to negotiate any price breaks. "I'd ask if they could beat the prices they were giving me, and they'd say, 'No, you're just a number to us,'" he says.

So when a Teligent salesman approached Global Acceptance, Varrichio listened, and decided to turn over his 16 lines and three 800 numbers to the wireless carrier. His phones are wired to an antenna on the roof that sends and receives phone calls. Teligent's terrestrial network picks up the calls at a wireless base station and passes them on to traditional local and long-distance phone networks.

Now his monthly phone bills have dropped to about $1,200 from a previous high of $3,300. Teligent charges 6.6 cents per minute for in-state long-distance and 5.5 cents per minute for out-of-state long-distance. The best rate he could get from other carriers was 9.5 cents. Monthly dial tone prices were $800 per month from SBC, but only $330 from Teligent, Varrichio says.

Phones are vital to his business, he says. Global Acceptance buys debt from large lenders, such as credit card companies, at a fraction of its worth.

Global Acceptance then collects as much of the debt as possible and hopefully makes a profit. "I spend all day on the phone. That's all I do," Varrichio says.

As part of its service, Teligent tracks the use of individual phone lines so Varrichio can monitor his collectors' productivity. Teligent also offers a Web-based view of Varrichio's billing records that list the phone numbers debtors use to call his firm. The numbers are posted the next day, when Varrichio's collectors can trace the location of callers via the numbers and then dial back. Sometimes this leads to places of work where debtors' pay can be garnished.

Global Acceptance also leases two analog phone lines from Teligent for dial-up Internet access and fax calls. These lines once failed to accept a fax because Teligent's network didn't recognize the new area code the caller was dialing from, but Varrichio says that problem has since been fixed.

Varrichio reports another instance in which the phones went down for 15 minutes for an unknown reason. Teligent ended up refunding him $125.

Overall, Varrichio is confident about the wireless technology, even though it can be affected by rain. "A tornado blew through Fort Worth, but if the weather got bad enough that something happened to the equipment on our building, it might do the same thing to SBC or anybody else," he says.

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