In a DSL World, the Portal is Dead

After only a single day of using my new Internet-all-the-time DSL service, a realization hit: The portal is dead.When your Internet connection is always "on," the concept of the home page disappears. It's just like watching TV. You begin where you left off -- at the channel, or web page, you last visited.With the arrival of DSL, my personalized Excite home page was out of sight, out of mind. The web experience changed, but at first I couldn't quite pinpoint why. Then, as I repeatedly returned to my computer to check e-mail or the latest headlines, I understood that the familiar Excite homebase was missing. I was floating in cyberspace.Portals, which essentially serve as anchors, gain their power from dial-up connections. They are starting points that automatically appear when the telephone connection is initiated. Without dial-up connections, portals loose their mooring. DSL forces the user to choose where to go next. This subtle shift, I suspect, will have an enormous impact on how people use the Internet in the future.I wondered: Do all the people investing all this money in portals know this? I asked a few friends in the cyber business. Each expressed surprise at my experience. Maybe that's because most people -- even those who sell this stuff -- don't actually use the technology.It's no wonder AT&T and America Online are so doggedly trying to control the "first screen" one sees after logging on the Internet. They want to slap their logo in your face and sell you something along the way.But the generic (pre AOL-owned) Netscape browser on my Powerbook doesn't care about brands and has no loyalty to the big media companies. It makes me decide where to go. In an ironic way, it's what the Internet used to be before it was co-opted by corporate America for e-commerce.When the major browser creators catch on, I'd bet they'll modify their software to return to a home page (their own, no doubt) after a certain interval of inactivity. There's just no way they'll passively stand by and let users actually choose where they want to go each time a new session begins.The only remaining question is whether or not there will be a switch to turn off their home page. There had better be, or the new breed of independent browers will have a field day signing up customers.A Taste of Interactive TVThe DSL experience offers a tempting taste of the future of television. Though the 640Kbps "Personal Infospeed" service I use with Bell Atlantic in New York City is far from the bandwidth needed for truly interactive television, streaming media at this speed improves dramatically.Full motion video, though viewed in a small on-screen box with some compression artifacts, actually works reasonably well and is useful for watching news footage or talking heads. The endless buffering and annoying gaps are dramatically reduced, and playback is no longer the frustrating experience one encounters when using a 56K modem.Though the 12X boost in speed is a welcome luxury, an unanticipated surprise with DSL is the freedom it provides from the slow, cumbersome dial-up process required to access the Internet. The midday busy signals, the botched authentication and the wildly varying connection speeds are gone with DSL. Just like TV, you turn it on (or click a mouse) and it's there. The time savings are significant.Though my DSL connection has worked flawlessly so far, getting the service installed and set-up was no bed of roses. First off, dealing with the phone company is a miserable experience. These paramilitary-style organizations still have the arrogant attitude of a monopoly and their ineptness on the "customer service" level is the biggest threat to the success of DSL.Be proactive and aggressive or you will languish in a sea of unresolved problems. Perseverance is essential. A speaker phone is also nice for all the time you'll spend on hold while you're repeatedly assured how important your call is to Bell Atlantic.From my initial order until I got the service working, I estimate I spent well over three hours on hold with Bell Atlantic people over a five-day period. Others report even worse experiences, and I've talked to no one without some DSL installation horror story.Once you get the DSL set-up kit by mail, home installation can be quite easy. Macintosh computers with built-in Ethernet connections are virtually plug and play. One only has to enter a few numbers in the Mac's TCP/IP control panel. Windows PC set-up is another story and can range from a few minutes to a few days, depending on the configuration of the system.The DSL modem has a row of LEDs that confirm whether you are connected to a DSL line and whether a link has been established with your computer. In my case, all went smoothly with the home installation. It took only minutes for set-up and I received positive confirmation of a connection from the modem. Problem was the connection didn't work.After repeated suggestions that the fault must lie on my end, I finally connected with a Bell Atlantic tech support rep who had the patience to work with me to get a fix. After nearly six hours of repeated tests, the problem was traced to the central office in my Upper West Side neighborhood. Only after a technician replaced a circuit card on the Bell Atlantic side did my service begin to work.DSL, and the competing cable modem technology, are remarkable advances that offer a glimpse of what the future of the Internet can be. But getting past the technical complexity of initial set-up and the monopoly mentality of phone and cable companies, my be the biggest obstacle of all.(Frank Beacham is a New York City-based writer and producer. Visit his web site at: http://www.beacham.com. E-mail: frank@beacham.com)

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