Since the early 1990s, a joke in the technology industry has been
that ISDN stands for It Still Does Nothing. It failed to live up to the
PR hype that accompanied its launch and was plagued by a very low
acceptance rate because of its cost.
With new competitors entering the market, the messages of high-speed
access to the internet, as well as time and cost-savings are reaching
business and consumers. Executives in hi-tech PR hope that ISDN will
come of age in 1998.
’ISDN as a connection technology has been around for many years but
negative perceptions, such as cost, mean it has not achieved dramatic
penetration rates in the UK,’ says Andrew Smith, business group director
at the A Plus Group. ’Until now, ISDN has been a solution in search of a
need and the solution was not articulated.’
What has changed is that ISDN is no longer hi-tech. It is what the
industry calls second generation technology. As such, it is tried and
tested, and more applications are being developed to make use of it.
Finally, ISDN is no longer the realm of one supplier and the cost is
This year the industry will target small and medium-sized businesses as
the most lucrative growth area, and PR experts expect to tackle the
consumer residential market later in the year.
ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) is a truly digital line.
Using a conventional-looking telephone line, ISDN provides a connection
that is digital end-to-end.
There are two bandwidths within one ISDN line, each with a maximum of
64Kbps (kilobauds per second). Bundled together, they have a maximum
speed of 128Kbps. The main users of ISDN until recently have been in the
business-to-business market, particularly graphics houses that use ISDN
primarily as a data line to send and receive large files. It has also
been seen as an efficient voice connection technology.
BT is by far the largest ISDN provider, and has offered ISDN lines to
businesses since 1988. In the early 1990s, BT introduced the basic rate,
ISDN 2e (two channels each with up to 64K) for small and medium-sized
’The small-to-medium-sized business market is still an area to explore
because ISDN is no longer technically state of the art or experimental
technology,’ says BT’s PR manager, Business Division, Glyn Jones. ’It is
no longer complicated or expensive and we felt that the large businesses
already knew about the benefits of ISDN.’
BT shifted its attention in 1995 to small and medium-sized
’The majority of small businesses two years ago did not know what ISDN
was and how it worked,’ says Jones. ’But we made this audience aware of
its usage and how widely it is being used through education.’
Case studies demonstrated how businesses sent large data files, used
video conferencing and practised teleworking (working from home).
BT has been targeting the information technology trade press for those
who are looking at ISDN’s technical side but also the national papers,
which focus on ISDN’s uses and on customer profiles.
BT begins a new campaign focusing on ISDN in the first quarter of 1998,
targeting small businesses. Its aim is to highlight its benefits and
correct perceptions such as ISDN being expensive. It will also position
ISDN as a standard connection, while pointing out that it does much more
than transmit a voice over a telephone line.
’ISDN is changing the way people work, by offering an alternative to the
post or the courier,’ says BT’s ISDN marketing manager Nick Jones.
But PR executives such as Andrew Smith of A Plus believe that ultimately
the big selling point will be efficient and quicker access to the
’With internet usage in the UK continuing to climb, consumer users are
looking to ISDN as an affordable connection technology that will provide
the speed and reliability needed to support the increasing demands of
multimedia-enabled web sites,’ he says.
As ISDN prices come down, the 56K market (see case study) may be
’The fact that ISDN rates are set to tumble in the next few months may
prove the turning point for the technology as it leapfrogs current 56K
modems,’ he says.
The prices are set to fall this year because of competition from other
telecoms companies. Cable and Wireless Communications (C&W) has been
selling its own ISDN lines for ten years to large businesses. It is now
switching its focus to small and medium-sized companies as it introduces
its basic rate service. ’We believe that ISDN, because of its
flexibility over a range of business applications, is ideally suited to
small and medium-sized businesses,’ says Andy Rogers, PR manager for
C&W promotes its ISDN lines in a similar way to BT, highlighting cost
and time efficiency but differs in stressing good value, features such
as voicemail, and 24-hour customer service. PR campaigns will target its
six million UK-based customers as well as businesses in areas where C&W
has existing business telecoms licenses.
C&W began market trials in northern England last month and, if
successful, will expand this year to its other regions, including most
It also is planning a number of initiatives to support the campaign
drawing on the experience of its roster of PR agencies which includes
Biss Lancaster and Brunswick. In the middle of this year, C&W intends to
target the residential market. To lure existing BT ISDN customers, it
will offer them the chance to move to C&W while maintaining the same
Telecoms giant Worldcom will also enter the ISDN market this month by
starting to resell BT lines. Full details are still under wraps but the
company will initially target the business-to-business market through
nationwide dealer channels.
Telecoms company TDS is also entering the market this year. In August,
it joined forces with German-based Teles, which is the world’s largest
ISDN terminal adaptor provider, to license and distribute in the UK.
Like Worldcom, TDS will be reselling BT’s lines along with BT-endorsed
terminal adaptors called ’ISDN in a Box’. It will include added
applications such as fax/modem software, ’virtual secretary’ and video
mail software along with customer service/ helpdesk facilities.
TDS will target the small business market and believes that consumers
who are internet buffs and who have high disposable income will be the
next source of revenue. TDS discovered from market research that 39 per
cent of small businesses are already on the internet, disillusioned with
the speed of their modem, and would be willing to try ISDN.
’We have a ready-made market to take our solutions out to the
marketplace,’ says TDS marketing director Ian Clarke. The PR campaign
for small businesses, which has yet to be finalised, will target
specific trade publications and possibly the sponsorship of a web site
or a search engine.
Internet Service Providers are also moving into ISDN, targeting the
small business market. According to industry sources, Netcom is in
discussion with BT to resell its lines at a lower cost. The talks
include a package for small and medium-sized businesses offering an
all-encompassing ISDN system, similar to TDS. If discussions are
successful, Netcom could begin selling its packages as early as next
Industry experts predict that ISDN will become mainstream within the
year but they stress that it will have a limited lifespan. With the
likely development of other faster channels for sending information -
such as cable modems which use a cable TV line instead of a conventional
phone line - the challenge once again for hi-tech PR people will be to
maintain a dialogue with both business and domestic customers in the
face of the fast moving world of technological obsolescence.
A QUESTION OF SPEED: Get ready for rush hour
Battles between rival manufacturers to establish their product as the
industry standard are not unusual. Occasionally these struggles make
headlines and can impact on the consumer.
One such example is the new generation of modems. Manufacturers have
increased the speed at which they transmit data and are offering the new
56Kbps (kilobauds per second) modems as a cheaper alternative to ISDN
technology. The two standards, K56flex and x2, cannot talk to each other
so choosing which to invest in is important for consumers.
US Robotics (www. x2.usr.co.uk) was the first company to register its
technology with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in
September 1996. It was unveiled to the public and media in January
Its competitors, a consortium including Rockwell International
Corporation and Lucent Technologies Inc, launched their product the
Disputes over intellectual property keep the competitors from using the
same hardware. As with any new technology vying to become the world
standard, each competitor is promoting its product as the market leader.
Both claim victory in numbers of sales and acceptance of their standard
by modem manufacturers and Internet Service Providers (ISP). This
prompted a massive PR campaign from each side. 3Com created a page
within its web site (www.3Com.com) dedicated to the x2 and K56 flex
battle called ’Facts v Fiction’.
For Lucent Technologies, the most important piece of evidence is
According to its PR agency, Kingston-upon-Thames-based EML, sales
figures for August/ September showed the K56flex in front, taking 70 per
cent of the modem industry.
For journalists and consumers the messages from the national and trade
press have been confusing. But, a year down the line, some points are
becoming clear. The 56K technology is being promoted as a cheaper
alternative to ISDN. The 56K technologies are similar. Some ISPs are
taking sides, while others are hedging their bets by adopting both
technologies. Consumers are forced to make their own decision or to
follow the lead of their ISP.
In theory, x2 and K56flex can reach a speed of 56Kbps. But consumer
tests carried out by magazines such as Internet have claimed that they
only reach speeds in the high 40s and occasionally in the low 50s. US
Robotics refused to comment on reports that consumers in the US are
suing manufacturers for failing to perform as claimed. Both
manufacturers have added disclaimers to the product packaging which
state simply that modems can reach speeds up to 56K, depending on the
quality of the telephone line.
In December, a partial resolution to the standards war was mediated by
the ITU that used aspects of both technologies and a final decision on a
standard is expected this month.
GERMANY: Deutsche Telekom adopts a simple strategy
The UK is not the only market for ISDN where the consumer has been left
almost untouched. Up until a few years ago, the take up of ISDN in
Germany was low.
When it was first introduced in December 1989, ISDN was positioned as a
flexible communications tool that provided users (both business and
residential users were targeted) with a simple and cost-effective
In 1990, out of 32 million telephone lines in Germany, only 84,100 were
ISDN. In the past two years, however, ISDN has been taking the country
by storm. In Spring 1995, Deutsche Telekom began actively promoting ISDN
to residential and small office/home office users using a combination of
PR, advertising and direct mail (included in customer bills). By 1996,
of 44 million telephone lines, 5.2 million were ISDN. Of these, 600,000
were for residential customers.
Deutsche Telekom is currently the only ISDN player in the market because
of the slow progress of deregulation. For Deutsche Telekom, this has
provided an opportunity to establish ISDN relationships with
specifically small and medium-sized businesses and residential
The company launched an aggressive hard-sell communications campaign for
ISDN. This included a flood of TV and print advertisements targeting
both business and residential customers which announced special offer
packages for first-time ISDN connections and low-price handsets. The
advertisements were accompanied by PR aimed at educating the public.
Deutsche Telekom’s key message was simplicity along with the benefits to
small businesses and residential customers. These were promoted as two
telephone lines (one for voice and one for fax/internet access) and up
to three telephone numbers.
As the campaign progressed, simplicity was still the key message and
drove the advertising. It offered ideas on how to use ISDN, either for
high-speed internet surfing or two phone lines, allowing simultaneous
’For Deutsche Telekom, a fully-functioning ISDN system is a benefit for
companies and for private users,’ says industry observer Stefan
Ehgartner, managing director of Harvard PR in Munich. ’They promoted
high-speed data transmission for things like e-mail and data and
superfast call connection, in addition to many improved features, all
making working life a lot easier.’
The other focus of the PR campaign was to target specific markets, such
as architects and doctors, via the press and educate them about the
benefits of ISDN.
As a result, the take-up of ISDN has continued dramatically. From 31
December 1996 until 31 July 1997, a million ISDN channels were
installed, bringing the total to 6.3 million. Analogue lines are still
used substantially in Germany although, notably, the growth of analogue
lines is slower than that of ISDN.
If the take-up of ISDN in Germany continues through Deutsche Telekom’s
promotions, there may be a smaller market for new players such as Bosch
Telekom once the industry fully deregulates.
Bosch has installed two ISDN networks in the UK for British companies,
the retail group Oasis and for Lasmo. It plans to be one of the top five
ISDN suppliers in the UK by the year 2000.
BT: Making the customer connection via radio
One of BT’s chief campaigns in 1997 highlighted the value of ISDN.
Called ’Why Not Change the Way We Work,’ it was launched last May. It
focused on flexible working and productivity for large and small
BT’s basic service, ISDN2e, was promoted primarily as an alternative to
travelling to work. The campaign used advertising and direct mail along
with well-focused PR to spread the message: ISDN is teleworking. It
enables people to log-in to computers at work, to send and receive data,
and to take part in video conferencing with colleagues at home or at
The campaign used case studies of existing ISDN customers. BT showed
that all kinds of operations use ISDN, from a global education charity
to a vegetable importer in New Covent Garden.
’ISDN is fast becoming the standard business line, accounting for over
30 per cent of all new business line orders,’ says Dominic Owens of BT’s
National Business Communications. ’Today, we wonder how we survived
without the fax machine. Tomorrow, we’ll wonder how we ever communicated
BT worked with the radio station, Classic FM, on a promotion during
European Teleworking Week at the start of November. BT installed ISDN2e
lines in the homes of all the presenters for the promotion’s final day.
The entire day’s programming came from the presenter’s homes, as far
apart as Dublin, London, Bath and Canterbury.
The response from Classic FM listeners was positive and the promotion
generated coverage by Channel 5 News as well as by regional media in the
presenters’ home towns.
BT also worked with Jazz FM in the weeks prior to Christmas to promote
teleworking over the holidays. Instead of operating a skeleton staff,
the message was to have staff available at the end of a telephone or
On New Year’s Day, BT again sponsored Classic FM. The theme was to
resolve to change the way you work in 1998, highlighting ISDN and
encouraging listeners make their New Year’s resolution to work ’smarter,
The campaign, according to BT, was a success. During the first five
months of the campaign, more than 88,000 ISDN2e lines were
More than 20,000 firms each month are adding ISDN lines and sales are up
25 per cent.