One daily concern for European Windows NT users is the shocking price we pay for telecoms. Europe has pockets of substantial telecoms infrastructure, but most countries still have limited competition and high prices. For example, the two major providers in the UK are British Telecom (BT) and Mercury, and a gaggle of cable providers in a few areas. On mainland Europe, the story is not so good. Belgium has areas where only the monopoly telecoms provider offers service.
For speeds faster than an ordinary analogue phone line, you must hand over your wallet. For example, I pay BT about $7000 per year for a permanent Internet connection on an X21 64 kilobits per second (Kbps) line to my Internet Service Provider (ISP) for standard twisted pair wire.
Europe has an extensive Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) infrastructure, especially in Germany, where ISDN is popular. In the UK, however, you still have to pay a multi-hundred-dollar installation fee and a quarterly rental that runs to three figures. If you want to use ISDN to connect to the Internet, very few providers can offer the service, and such a connection usually requires a high-cost long-distance phone call to make it work.
At least things are changing now. Several cable providers have deals with ISPs, and if you choose carefully, you can go online at 6:00 pm and be online all night for no phone-call cost and no per-hour online charges. However, in the UK, such facilities are available only to the lucky few who live in a major city.
The Microsoft Network (MSN), of all things, has wrought another major change: A local call-rate ISDN access facility for the whole UK, so we can surf the Web at super-modem speeds for the same local-call cost as a modem connection. Understanding how MSN can provide this service isn't difficult: Serious ISPs take their incoming telecoms data feeds on fibre optic cable, and plug them into Ascend Max boxes, which handle modem and ISDN calls with equal alacrity on any channel. Given the facilities for phone-call redirection at the telephone company's machine-room sites, setting up local call-rate ISDN for the whole country is easy. In the UK, several ISPs now offer this service.
Why does this change matter? Well, the size of downloads today makes speed crucial. Suddenly, floppy discs have become past currency, and large Internet downloads are the order of the day. CD-ROMs are reserved for final product or for the monster apps such as Office 97. Point your FTP browser at the excellent (and mostly unknown) ftp://download.microsoft.com site, and look at the jewels there. For a zip file to be in the tens of megabytes is not uncommon now, and Internet Studio comes in at a staggering 52MB.
And if you think we get poor FTP speed performance just because we are on the wrong side of The Big Pond, let me tell you that I have no problems getting 7Kbps download speed on my 64Kbps line from Microsoft. Contrast that speed to America Online (AOL), which sinks to a crawl most evenings, or to CompuServe, which seems to imply that 200 bytes per second is adequate. I used to be involved with the NT conferences on CompuServe but have abandoned the service because the Telnet performance is so miserable. Friends such as the inestimable Bob Chronister tell me that they get excellent performance in the States. A traceroute from my machine to gateway.compuserve.com shows I get there in fewer than seven hops with excellent PING performance. But firing up CompuServe's browser, WinCim3, and making a connection is often fruitless. (Strangely enough, Microsoft is the company that shows that reliable high-speed Internet connectivity is entirely feasible--from their monster site in Redmond--if you do the job right.)
The telecoms environment is improving rapidly in Europe, but we still have a huge way to go. We still have a lot of room for competition and radical downward movement in price.
See the Sites of Europe
In case you hadn't noticed, Microsoft has an excellent selection of country-specific Web sites within the main MS Web tree. The front-door Web page lists supported countries. Select one, and drop into country-
specific information. And knocking Microsoft for ultra-gaudy colour schemes might be fashionable, but you must admit that the company has done an excellent job making its Web site multilingual. The site even accomodates countries with multiple national languages. For example, in Belgium part of the country speaks French and another part speaks Flemish, so the MS Belgium Web site is bilingual!
I checked out other company sites. IBM's remains steadfastly in American English, except for a few slow-changing pages. Lotus put in a decent effort, but managed to ignore several European countries. Borland have made a reasonable effort with French and German sites.
The cold financial reality is that building a large, complex Web site costs a lot of money. Wholesale translation of a Web site costs even more, and to maintain a dynamic Web site in a multitude of languages must cost a fortune. But the goodwill that such effort creates is worth the price.
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