Speed to the rescue

Sometimes faster is better, especially when it comes to doing business over the InternetWe live in a world obsessed with speed. Raising speed limits on highways has become the political equivalent of motherhood, and cars are sold on their apparent ability to set the woods on fire. Wireless phones, pagers, and e-mail provide instant communications, at least if you're not out of the coverage area and

Sometimes faster is better, especially when it comes to doing business over the Internet

We live in a world obsessed with speed. Raising speed limits on highways has become the political equivalent of motherhood, and cars are sold on their apparent ability to set the woods on fire. Wireless phones, pagers, and e-mail provide instant communications, at least if you're not out of the coverage area and the batteries aren't dead. And now a simple agreement by a handful of companies that may some day result in faster Internet connections is deemed important enough news to merit front page coverage by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

This is one time when higher speed may offer some real steak to go along with the sizzle. The agreement involves standards for a technology called digital subscriber line, or DSL, and it is big news, especially for trucking and its customers.

In a nutshell, DSL is supposed to offer Internet connection speeds of 1.5-million bits per second (bps) over existing copper telephone lines. By comparison, the fastest dial-up modems are rated at 56,000 bps and in reality can't connect at speeds faster than 52,000 bps. Even better, DSL is designed to provide a full-time network connection (no dialing into a busy server) without interfering with voice communications over the same phone line. And initial estimates on cost, which should always be viewed with skepticism, put hardware and service costs close to those for current dial-up Internet access.

DSL has been kicking around for a while in a number of competing, and noncompatible, forms. However, the new standards mean it now actually has a good chance of widespread adoption, especially since the companies that hammered out the agreement include Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, GTE, and four of the country's five regional telephone companies. Those are some pretty powerful advocates.

So why would DSL be such a good thing for trucking? Put aside visions of animated consumer Web sites and think about a network with instant access and universal software standards that can reach into anyplace wired for a telephone. And all with no major new infrastructure costs or headaches.

Trucking operations generate and consume a lot of information that has to be shared both internally and with those using your services. The Internet holds the promise of low-cost, universal access to that information, but right now it requires compromises that are unacceptable to most fleets.

An Intranet could be a perfect solution for internal data communications, but unless you can afford to lease expensive high-speed dedicated connections for all of your locations, you're stuck with slow, and often unreliable, dial-up access.

Extranets, which simply extend Intranet access to selected customers, or public Internet Web sites suffer from the same problems. Either you limit the amount of data so that download times are reasonable over a dial-up, or limit access to those with dedicated lines.

The speed of DSL could do away with those crippling compromises, offering instant, universal access to virtually unlimited amounts of data. The implications for trucking operations truly are enormous.

Of course, an agreement on standards is only the most preliminary step. When you mix emerging technology, huge market potential, and large, competitive businesses, there are going to be a lot of opportunities to derail even what sounds like a sure thing. Let's hope the computer and communications industries keep their competitive egos in check long enough to deliver a working version of DSL.

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