Bandwidth: The Future is Now?

BY: | September 30, 1998

I've seen the future of residential mixed analog and digital communications delivery, and it is good.

I watched a complex, high-quality video come across a standard telephone line -- twisted pair copper wire, just like in your home -- in realtime. We're talking digital-quality picture and sound delivered to a standard TV set. The system lets the owner simultaneously make a telephone call, surf the Net and watch a video over the same phone line.

The system, put together by FreeLinQ Communications Corp. provides all the hardware and installation at no charge to the customer and offers 600 hours, and counting, of all-digital movies on demand. Internet access will be available for a monthly fee of $29.95. But this is not the kind of Internet access most of us have at home. These residential customers will have "always on" access at about 1.5Mbps for both downloading and uploading data. This is more than 50 times faster than a 28.8Kbps modem connection.

Too good to be true, you say? Well, it is for you and me, at least for now. As is true with the introduction of many new technologies, this initial deployment is available to the well-heeled consumer -- in this case the very well-heeled: the residents of Trump Towers in New York City. Trump Towers, the flagship of Trump's New York City real estate holdings, is a mixed-use building a few blocks from Central Park on Fifth Avenue. It contains retail shops, commercial offices such as Calvin Klein, and 40 floors of some of the highest-priced real estate in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

However, FreeLinQ, headquarted in New York City, intends to introduce the service to middle-income buildings in New York later this year, and to other major metropolitan cities as well.

FreeLinQ is an advertiser-supported service. In exchange for free access to the movies, residents must watch two 30-second interactive advertisements before the show. At the end of each ad the user is presented with a question to be answered about the ad. A standard TV remote control is used to respond to the questions. For example, if the ad is for a car, the consumer might be asked whether he or she plans to buy a car soon. Once both ads have run and their respective questions have been answered, the selected movie starts and is shown uninterrupted.

Although the service is free, residents are required to register to take advantage of it. The registration process creates a personal profile for each user of the system. The profiles are stored in a private database maintained by FreeLinQ. The movies are stored on nCUBE media servers in MPEG-1 format. The FreeLinQ channel can also handle MPEG-2 format, which will be introduced in a second phase.

Every aspect of the service is linked to the customer profile database which allows FreeLinQ to offer advanced features such as bookmarking -- recalling where a user stopped a movie so it can be restarted later at the same point.

The FreeLinQ system requires that users log in using their name and an optional password. Because all content delivered within the system is controlled by the database, parents can restrict their children's movie selections. The system will know when a child has logged in and will offer only films with ratings approved by the parents.

Another advantage of the database integration is that it allows for targeted ad presentation. After the customer answers the question presented at the end of the first 30-second commercial, the system is able to more precisely target the second ad based on profile information and the first response. This procedure is repeated with different questions and commercials for each new program selection. The entire process takes less than 90 seconds, a small price to pay for free all-digital movies and low-cost, high-bandwidth Internet access.

This technology also provides a ready-made platform for conducting electronic commerce over the system.

"We designed the system from the ground up to be commerce-ready," said Kenneth L. Scharf, FreeLinQ president and COO. Specifics of the commerce applicati- ons to be offered under the FreeLinQ systemhave notyetbeen released.

Accordingto F. Harry Geruldsen, vice president in charge of purchasing for The Trump Organization, Free -LinQ approached Trump Towers with a proposal to provide the system at no charge to Trump or residents. "After a thorough review of their technology, we asked ourselves, 'Why stop there?'" said Geruldsen. The Trump Organization has now gone on to form a partnership with FreeLinQ, and plans are under way to roll out the system to other Trump-owned buildings and beyond.

Under The Hood

The key to the feasibility of this system and its attractiveness to The Trump Organization is Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology, which allows large quantities of digital data to be sent over standard copper telephone lines. DSL supports data transfer rates from 1.5 to 9Mbps when receiving data -- the downstream rate -- and typically from 16 to 640Kbps when sending data -- the upstream rate.

"With the FreeLinQ system, we are achieving symmetrical rates [both upstream and downstream] of 2.0 Mbps and more using a proprietary DSL system," said Scharf, who declined to elaborate on the specifics of the upstream DSL technology.

DSL requires a special modem, which FreeLinQ provides free to Trump Towers residents who sign up. DSL modems use digital coding techniques to squeeze up to 99 percent more capacity out of a standard phone line without interfering with regular phone services, allowing multiple simultaneous uses of the line.

The beauty of DSL technology is that it allows companies to deploy high-bandwidth systems to consumers without requiring them to rewire their homes or apartments. This was particularly attractive to Trump Towers. "We were not about to submit our residents to a lengthyconstruction project," Geruldsen said.

At the heart of the FreeLinQ system is aDSL modem and a network computer cleverly disguised as a set-top box. It looks very similar to a cable box, but contains a computer with a network-ready connection and standard telephone plugs to link the system. The box even has a built-in Internet Web browser. Customers will be able to use the system to surf the Net on the television. An optional infrared keyboard is available to control the Internet system, but the remote will also have some control features.

"We will also be offering these high-speed access and related services to our business customers," Geruldsen explained, "but that will be down the road a bit."

Likewise, it may be some time before free movies and blazing Internet access make it to the average homeowner or apartment dweller. The bandwidth rush has many companies competing to be the first to offer affordable high-speed access to the consumer. Telecommunications firms are rolling out DSL in a variety of flavors to various markets in 1998. Cable companies are pushing their cable-modem technology, DSL's main competitor, designed to provide high-speed data access and operate over cable TV lines -- a subject for future examination. In the meantime, the rest of us will have to travel coach class on the Internet until someone figures out how to bring affordable high-speed access to the masses.

John Stanard is a senior consultant with webworld studios, inc., a Northern Virginia-based Internet consulting and Web application development company.

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