Part 6 in a series describing choices for Internet access in rural Sonoma County

The last option for rural broadband access is expensive, but worth considering if you’re desperate and you’re either (a) well to do, or (b) in a position to make it a tax writeoff.

ISDN is ancient technology. It could have been the first consumer broadband choice, long before DSL, but the phone company didn’t want to lower the price for consumers because that would have cut down its revenues from ISDN business customers. It has remained in the shadows, never promoted, seldom considered. Since there’s no significant demand from consumers, there’s never been a push by manufacturers to develop friendly equipment. There’s no Linksys ISDN router with a web interface that can be set up in three minutes, as there is for DSL lines.

ISDN delivers a 128K connection. That’s it. Barely qualifies as broadband – that’s only three or four times the speed of a modem. But there are a couple of advantages over modems.

First, ISDN lines are all-digital, which gives you cleaner, error-free, reliable data transmission. Analog phone lines used by modems are subject to data errors caused by line noise and other transmission interruptions.

Second, ISDN connections are made by a process similar to a regular modem – the ISDN modem dials, connects, passes a logon name and password to be authenticated, and then puts you online. But an ISDN modem can handle that entire process in less than 5 seconds. Remember: the biggest difference between a modem and a broadband connection is not the speed, it’s the knowledge that the connection is always on. ISDN effectively delivers that feeling of an always-on connection.

Up until two years ago, ISDN pricing was sneaky. There was a monthly charge for the line, just like the charge for a voice phone line. But there was also an unavoidable charge per minute for every minute the line was connected. The connection was charged at local business rates, and it was charged on each of the two channels used by the ISDN connection.

Every time the computer connected to the ISDN line, it was charged six cents for the first minute, and two cents for every minute thereafter.

The whole point of having a broadband connection is to allow your computer to check your mail every five minutes, to let the antivirus program gets its automatic updates, to let other computers in the house have free access to the connection. Computers find lots of reasons to go online. With an ISDN connection, bills would roll in for hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month. I used to walk by the door of my office and the blood would drain from my face when I saw the lights glowing, and I’d race in and disconnect the computer – by unplugging it from the modem if I had to.

I didn’t last long on ISDN in 2000.

There are still a variety of ways to get ISDN, and it’s still possible to get trapped by per-minute charges. But I’ve learned that there’s another way, made possible by some regulatory changes in 2001.

SBC can now deliver a flat-rate ISDN line to your house for about $80/month. (The charge for ISDN is the same regardless of mileage, by the way.) will then set up a dedicated ISDN account for another $175/month.

And with that combination, you are entitled to keep that line connected at 128K twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week – there’s no per minute charges. And Windows can easily be set to hold the connection open and redial if the connection is ever dropped.

There’s nasty setup costs – $150 or more for SBC, another $150 to Sonic. And there’s fairly bewildering choices to make for hardware, since ISDN requires different hardware than anything else. I’m buying about $250 worth of hardware, and some of the ISDN routers are even more.

But the connection is solid, response times are very fast (suitable for online gaming), and 128K is fast enough to be satisfying – barely, but it will do.

If your modem makes you crazy and you’ve got $250/month burning a hole in your pocket, ISDN is worth considering. My line is scheduled to go live on May 31. I can’t wait.

So there you go. A sad list of choices for folks in the country –not a completely empty list, but a very short one indeed. Good luck! Happy surfing!

Share This