They call it "The Last Mile Problem."
The phrase refers to the phone connection linking the home consumer and the Internet-access provider.
For years, this "last mile" of phone line has represented a major bottleneck to faster communications. Faster speeds are needed to handle the Internet's hottest new features, such as streaming audio and video.
But finally the bottleneck is beginning to give way.
The latest breakthrough came in 1996 with the invention of so-called 56K modems that can receive 56,000 bits of information per second over conventional phone lines.
This roughly doubled modem speeds, which had earlier topped out at 28.8K or 33.6K.
(Note: 56K speeds only travel in one direction, typically from the Internet provider to the customer, with conventional speeds "upstream" in the other direction. But since users request much more information than they send, this one-way capability is rarely seen as much of a problem.)
Already popular, 56K modems should really take off in the spring when a new standard will ensure compatibility among modems produced by different manufacturers.
Now attention is turning to the next generation of modems, which users hope will boost connection speeds still further.
One of the leading contenders is the cable modem. These devices use the high-bandwidth capacity of cable-television lines to carry Internet data at speeds that could exceed 1 megabyte per second.
Neil Clemmons, vice president of marketing for 3Com Corp., which recently acquired modem maker U.S. Robotics, said he expects cable connections to the Internet to become increasingly popular.
Right now, one-way or "hybrid" cable modems are allowing many cable companies to offer Internet access without a steep investment in new equipment, Clemmons said.
These hybrids use the high-bandwidth cable to send data to the user. Data headed in the other direction -- from the user to the Internet -- goes over conventional phone lines, hence the term "one-way" cable modem.
"It's a nice intermediate step for consumers," Clemmons said.
Better still, mass-produced "two-way" cable modems will be available soon, further driving down the cost of high-speed access for both consumers and cable companies.
Cable modems offer big advantages over conventional modems.
Aside from the downstream speed edge, cable connections to the Internet are "always on," meaning that when you want to use the Internet, there's no annoying delay while you dial in and connect. (Those using hybrid modems will have to dial in for the outbound part of their connection, however.)
But cable modems aren't the last word in high-speed data connections. Coming up on the outside is a new breed of telephone modem that could achieve 1-megabyte-per-second speeds over regular phone lines.
Rockwell Semiconductor Systems, one of the leaders in modem technologies, is pushing a new kind of modem it calls CDSL for "consumer digital subscriber line."
The company says its CDSL modem, still in development, could make high-speed Internet access as easy as hooking it up to your personal computer. Amazingly, the CDSL modems would also allow people to speak on the phone at the same time.
Mike Henderson, a Rockwell product director in Newport Beach, Calif., said the CDSL technology could be available for retail distribution by the end of 1998. The big question, he said, is whether phone companies will seize the opportunity to deploy it.
You would think phone companies would be desperate to respond to the threat of cable firms' taking over the Internet-access business. After all, it's only a short step from providing Internet access to providing a rival, cable-based telephone service.
But phone companies aren't necessarily that anxious to offer CDSL-style services. Some may be more interested in protecting the revenues they get from sales of current high-speed connections, known as T-1 lines. Others may prefer to concentrate on other ventures, such as long-distance services.
Still, Henderson is hopeful that phone companies will recognize the competitive threat and see CDSL as an opportunity.
"My hope is that the industry will use 1998 effectively and that we will see DSL really begin to take off in 1999," Henderson said.
Either way -- with CDSL or cable modems -- consumers can look forward to much faster Internet connections in the foreseeable future.