ISDN’s Hidden Costs

(This column originated as a Letter to the Editor of the Derry News in Derry, NH circa October, 1996)

Note: This topic in this letter to the editor is somewhat regional, and may not apply if you happen to be fortunate enough to live in an area where your local phone company charges you a flat rate for local ISDN service. Here in New Hampshire, things are a little backward when it comes to our phone company…

In reading the October 18th issue of the Derry News, I was bemused by how positive a spin you put on Nynex’s $6 million dollar renovation. Nynex has certainly done a good job with their public relations.

While there’s no question that the new phone switch Nynex is installing will provide new benefits, such as caller ID and better quality, there is a question as to how useful the digital communcations features of the new system will be.

What I’m referring here to is ISDN (Integrated Service Digital Network) – a new service to significantly improve data communications. In the article, our own Earl Rinker touted ISDN as a key benefit of the new system. What Nynex has neglected to tell the people tooting Nynex’s horn for them (including, apparently, the Derry News) is how expensive and limited ISDN service really is.

For example, let’s say I went through the initial start-up expense of getting ISDN installed, which can be, on the low end, between $300-500 including the necessary ISDN hardware, or over a $1000 if certain conditions aren’t met. Once installed, the monthly fee for residential ISDN access ranges from $28 to $57. That’s not too bad if you need faster data access to another computer system.

Where the hidden costs lie are in the metering that Nynex performs. Every ISDN call costs extra money, above and beyond the monthly base fee! In addition to the 2 to 5 cents you pay every time you make a call on an ISDN line, you’ll also pay a per minute surcharge of anywhere from 3 to 24 cents a minute! Double that if you want to operate in high-speed data mode.

If you are like most families that spend an hour or two on the Internet every night, your ISDN surcharges will add up quickly – probably an additional $80 or so per month, on top of the monthly access fee! And businesses pay even more. Of course, compounding the whole situation is the fact that in order to make an ISDN data call, the number you’re calling also has to have ISDN, and currently no Internet Service Provider or on-line service offers ISDN in New Hampshire.

Nynex’s new phone system, arriving November 9th, may provide a number of benefits, but don’t count ISDN as one of them. If you still want fast data rates for your on-line use, wait until early next year when the new $200 56K bit modems hit the streets – pretty much the same throughput as regular ISDN, but without the steep price and limited access.

A Footnote

There are actually a couple of ways to sneak around the whole metered cost of ISDN, but these don’t tend to be readily available to consumers (the root of my gripe above). The first way, which requires effort primarily on the part of your data partner, involves making a data call via the voice side of ISDN, and once the connection is made, switching the call into data mode. This limits you to only a 56Kbps-64Kbps connection, and not the full 128Kbps that ISDN is capable of, but at least it doesn’t get metered like a pure data call would.

The other method requires more upfront money, and is only useful if your ISDN communcations are primarily with one other site. This involves having your ISDN number and the ISDN number of your ISP (assuming that’s your main use of ISDN) connected via a Centrex system (ask your phone company for details), which allows you to make full 128Kbps calls at no extra charge.