In the alphabet-soup world of telecommunications, where ATM isn't a bank machine, ISDN has more meanings than most acronyms.
Literally, it stands for "integrated systems digital network," a highfalutin name for an advanced telephone network that's been the heir apparent to plain old telephone lines for a decade. What ISDN does, essentially, is segment a conventional copper wire into three separate channels -- one for voice, one for video and one for data -- so more information can travel over a single line.
Applications for this faster, more versatile form of telephone service have been slow in coming -- so slow that cynics have quipped that ISDN means "It Still Does Nothing." Telephone companies kept adding it to their networks, but with scientists finding ever more clever ways of forcing new information through the traditional analog phone lines, there was never much reason to sign up for ISDN.
But now comes an application that could give ISDN a new meaning, says Intel Corp. vice president Patrick Gelsinger: "It Starts Delivering Now."
Last week, Intel unveiled a new "personal conferencing" program called ProShare VideoSystem 200 -- an ingenious bit of software that lets two people have a face-to-face video phone chat via computer while working on the same document at the same time. But you need an ISDN connection.
The program, priced as low as $1,200 including camera and video boards, was widely greeted as a breakthrough product. And if that's the case, it could be a breakthrough for ISDN as well.
"This is the kind of application we saw on the horizon and it's here now," said Brian J. Baum, Intel project coordinator for Bell Atlantic Corp. "With applications like this, especially in the business community, we'll end up moving to ISDN as a standard."
Maryland businesses and sophisticated home users could be the earliest beneficiaries. Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, said the company had extended ISDN links to between 60 percent and 70 percent of its Maryland customers by the end of last year and expects to have connected 90 percent of its customers by the end of this year.
And what does this mean for residential and business customers?
"The users have more options of what they do and where they do it," said Mr. Pacholczyk. "As ISDN is more ubiquitous throughout the network, you don't have to be in the central big building to get the job done."
In other word, telecommuting. All over the country, the movement is growing. Last month Pacific Bell offered free ISDN connections to prospective telecommuters in the Los Angeles area, where earthquake damage closed freeways and turned traditional commuting into a nightmare.
So far, Bell Atlantic isn't giving anything away. Prospective telecommuters would have to pay the $16.84 monthly rate for a business line, plus a $14 ISDN rate, in addition to 9 1/2 cents per local call.
Mr. Baum said that over time he expects a residential service to develop. Customers can call Bell Atlantic's ISDN Sales and Technology Center at 800-570-4736 for information.
And ATM? In tele-speak, that stands for "asynchronous transfer mode," which could be the next step after ISDN. But that's another story.