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Comcast sells fast cable link to Internet Modem downloads 1 million bits a second, firm claims; Service is company's first; It starts in Towson, moves to other areas of county, Howard


Comcast Corp. will set the stage for a high-stakes battle for high-speed Internet access today, as it announces it will offer Internet services that use existing cable systems in Baltimore and Howard counties instead of using phone lines to connect customers to the Net.

Comcast said the cable modems to be used with the service are up to 75 times faster at downloading Internet files than the most advanced products from telephone companies such as Bell Atlantic Corp. But phone companies are fighting back with their own technology to make the connection between consumers' homes and the Internet lightning-fast by today's standards.

The two camps expect to fight over the consumer Internet market with each other and with online services like America Online Inc., as part of the larger battle for position in the coming deregulation of markets for telecommunication services.

Comcast's Baltimore cable modem rollout will be its first nationwide.

Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications Inc., estimates there are only about 1,000 cable modems in use throughout the nation. The modems can routinely download 1 million bits of information per second. Standard household modems can handle 33,600 bits or less.

"The cable modem is quite unlike any product the consumer has ever used," said David Nevins, a Comcast spokesman. "This totally transforms the way people surf the Internet and use home computers."

The stakes are especially high for the cable companies. For years, the industry has openly hoped that branching out into Internet access will help companies breathe more life into a business buffeted by weak stock performance, new competition from aggressive satellite TV providers and big spending to upgrade cable networks to fiber optics.

But Bell Atlantic executives said yesterday that their competing technology, called ADSL, is being tested by consumers in Northern Virginia and will be ready for the commercial market in Baltimore next year. Executives of the telephone companies and other Internet service companies said they aren't worried about the new competition.

"They don't do cable very well, so I don't know how they'll do Internet very well," said Andrew E. Clark, chief executive of Columbia-based Clark Internet Services Inc. He said ADSL will let phone companies offer, for about $23 a month, the equivalent of a costly system now offered almost exclusively to businesses.

But the technical talk is lost on Micki Bond, an Anneslie resident who was in Comcast's consumer test group. "I don't understand any of the technical details," said Bond, who used to access the Net via America Online and CompuServe. "All I know is, it's

incredibly fast."

Comcast's new service will begin in the Towson area and it will be available, by the end of 1997, to 400,000 households in neighborhoods served by the cable company. Harford County initially will not get cable modem service.

Nevins said the service will be expanded to Lutherville, Timonium, Owings Mills and Cockeysville in the first quarter of 1997.

Speed is the biggest issue Comcast will be selling, and the modem is indeed quick. In an informal test yesterday of side-by-side computers downloading the same picture from the Internet, the one with a cable connection downloaded the test image instantly. The same picture took more than 30 seconds to appear on the computer that had a conventional Internet connection.

The company's other selling point for cable modem service, which it calls Comcasome, is that it will come with news, entertainment and information features developed by Comcast and its partner in the venture,ome Network of Mountain View, Calif.. This approach is closer to the appeal offered by online service providers like America Online Inc. and CompuServe FORMAL than many bare-bones Internet service providers who offer connection to the Net and little else.

The downside is that the service is much more expensive than its competitors. It will cost $39.99 a month for cable TV customers and $59.99 a month for others, with a hookup fee of $175.

"I don't think it's going to blow everybody off the map," said Mark Roberts, an Internet analyst at Montgomery Securities. "The standard Internet price is zero installation cost and $20 a month for unlimited use. This is a substantial premium to telephone-based Internet access."

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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