No One Has National Broadband Access Yet

LAS VEGAS (05/12/2000) - New DSL, cable modem and fixed-wireless services are growing in availability at residential and remote-office locations. But a widespread, low-cost replacement for corporate T-1 access lines still seems to be beyond the horizon.

That was one of the conclusions that emerged from Network World's Broadband Access Showdown, one of the keynote events at last week's NetWorld+Interop 2000 show.

At the showdown - an unscripted debate among top executives from AT&T Corp., MCI WorldCom Inc., SBC Communications Inc., Qwest Communications International Inc. and Nextlink Communications Inc. - the panelists poked enough holes in one another's strategies to show that no single carrier yet has a national solution to the local bandwidth chokehold.

Many of the panelists - plus the official questioners, Network World's Bob Brown and David Rohde - zeroed in on SBC's ambitious Project Pronto. That's a scheme by the mega-Bell company to place some 20,000 digital subscriber line terminals, which currently only support asymmetric DSL (ADSL), in neighborhoods.

Rivals pounded SBC Vice President Jason Few to explain why the carrier offers limited collocation space to competitors and requires them to install Alcatel line cards, stopping at ADSL's 384K bit/sec upstream capacity. SBC's Few insisted the carrier "will continue to evaluate" DSL options with higher speeds than ADSL and "does plan to offer" those services.

WorldCom Chief Technology Officer Fred Briggs noted that his firm is planning to go up the DSL food chain to very-high bit rate DSL (VDSL) supporting multimegabit connections over copper loops. Briggs challenged Few to say when SBC will upgrade its network to support higher-speed options suitable for corporate sites.

Few shot back that SBC is already spending $6 billion on Project Pronto, and implied that the firm - the dominant carrier in 13 states from Connecticut to California - could use more substantial help from its competitors than simply demands to ride piggyback on its loops.

Few then did some grilling of his own, challenging AT&T Vice President Mike Jenner to explain why the company hasn't yet opened up its prize asset - tens of millions of cable lines - to competitors. Jenner responded that the cable architecture will be substantially opened by 2002, but he couldn't specify how many competitors could ride the circuits.

But participants continued to press SBC's Few. Qwest Senior Vice President Augie Cruciotti wanted to know if Few could provide any tangible evidence, up to now lacking, that SBC will deliver on its stated plan to enter 30 local markets with broadband services outside its own states. When Few insisted there would be such a rollout, Cruciotti shot back: "Can you define rollout. What does that look like?"

Other panelists went to some lengths to note they have a variety of ways to solve users' local-access headaches. Nextlink Chief Technology Officer Doug Carter said his company is "technologically agnostic" despite its strong commitment to fixed wireless. Nextlink, which is buying DSL provider Concentric Network, prefers to build fiber links to end users, he said, but added, "We cannot get to enough buildings [with fiber] fast enough. That's why we go to fixed wireless."