A look at the latest telecommunications services of interest to digital photo studios


by John Henshall


It was a Friday afternoon, about three years ago, and the editor needed the 'Chip Shop' images at our repro company, Phoenix Photo Litho plc, in Leicester by first thing Saturday morning. It took a long time to copy the images to SyQuest cartridges and I missed the collection from Stanford in the Vale Post Office. No problem, I had until 5.15pm to catch the post at Faringdon, three miles away.

“Guaranteed delivery tomorrow morning, please.”

“No guaranteed delivery on Saturdays…”

Should I chance the package in the First Class mail, or drive to Leicester the next morning, I wondered?

“…but you could send it DataPost…”

I didn’t fancy a 200 mile drive. “Yes. That’s it. DataPost please.”

“…from Swindon. He’s already made the collection from here.”

I drove the thirty mile round trip to the Parcel Force office in Swindon.

“Leicester? Saturday morning? No problem. £43 please.”

“How much!?”



On the way back from Swindon I decided it was time to install an ISDN line -- "Integrated Services Digital Network" -- a big name for what boils down to nothing more or less than a digital phone line. That decision was one of the best I've made. Today, ISDN handles all our telephone and image delivery. We live and work in the heart of the countryside but can deliver our work as fast as anyone and faster than most.

Although ISDN sounds complicated, it really is straightforward. Most of us are familiar with a modem -- MOdulator/DEModulator -- which converts the bits and bytes generated by our computers into an audio signal, to be sent along an ordinary (analogue) telephone line, intended for speech. You've probably learned to wait patiently as your modem makes strange squeals and squawks for a minute or so as it shakes hands and identifies itself -- and you -- to your Internet Service Provider. Maybe you use the time to pray to the Internet gods that the connection will be fast and stable? Well would you believe that, after you've forked out for the latest 56k (kilobits per second) modem, the first thing that BT does, on receiving your modem's sounds in the local exchange, is convert them back into digital form. From the local exchange onwards the signals remain in digital form. So why not keep the signals to and from your computer in digital form -- all the way? Indeed, why use a modem at all?

Until recently, ISDN was regarded as something strange, futuristic, special -- and expensive. Except in Scandinavia, that is, where ISDN is the norm, even in domestic telephone installations. Installation costs have been high: a basic ISDN installation from BT still costs £199, though there are now some really good deals.

An ISDN line has two channels, each of 64k bandwidth, and these can be joined together electronically to achieve a speed of 128k. At 64k, call charges are exactly the same as for any other call but at 128k call charges double.

You might not think that the speed difference between a 56k modem and 64k ISDN is worth the change but it is. You notice the difference as soon as you log onto the Internet. From clicking in your browser, dialling and identification takes all of two seconds -- in silence. The other surprise is the speed of connection. You might like to believe that your modem motors away at the full 56k but it doesn't. In my experience single-channel ISDN surfing is at least two or three times faster than the fastest modem, yet it costs no more for the call. I never surf with both channels, though I might choose to use the facility when wanting to download big files from the Internet. But as a BT Internet subscriber, I can surf all weekend for free on an 0800 number. That's the time to download big files.

A month after that Friday afternoon experience three years ago, I finished the images for the next Chip Shop at 10pm. All that remained was to drag the whole folder of images onto the Phoenix Photo Litho entry in my address book on the computer desktop and go home. When I returned, the images had been delivered and confirmed. All for the price of an off-peak phone call.

There was no need to copy the images to a SyQuest -- today it would be to a CD-Writable, Zip or Jaz cartridge -- no need to write a covering letter, to pack securely for transit, to drive to the post or call a courier. No need to keep records to check that the expensive cartridges have been returned (so many never were). In short, absolutely no fuss and -- most important of all -- no time wasted. Since then I have sent all my Chip Shop images by ISDN. In fact, I now use it to send images everywhere, including Dunn's Imaging for printing on their 20x30 inch Kodak LED printer. The finished prints arrive by post the next morning.

For the past three years, the equipment we have been using to send images is iSDN Manager from 4Sight, a British company based in Bournemouth. A NuBus card with an ISDN socket resides inside our Power Macintosh 8100/80, saved from redundancy because it is the only computer we still have which will still accept this type of card. The system has worked flawlessly every month, not only for sending images to The Photographer but also to other publications. When editors realise that you can get a full resolution image to them in minutes, they tend to phone at the last minute, so we are now working on an on-line picture library of an archive of images spanning nearly forty years in film and television. Images will only be supplied in digital form by ISDN. More of that project some other time.

In March 1998, 4Sight merged with Wam!Net and launched a high speed digital delivery network which enables big publishers to deliver jobs at speeds of up to 2000MPH -- that means Megabytes Per Hour. ISDN Manager is still available, now known as 'Transmission Manager'. Wam!Net is a private network service for those moving serious amounts of data around. It acts as a digital courier system, routing images to where they need to be but without the need for bikes. Charges range from £30 per month for 50MPH (software only for use with an existing ISDN line and card), right up to £5075 for 2000MPH in the most expensive zone for data lines. This is equivalent to something like fifty A4 CMYK images per hour and I know of no photographic studio with this level of output. Even the most prolific catalogue studio would probably be able to manage with the 100MPH option, which uses two ISDN lines. This costs £60 per month for software only, or £85 per month including software and card, plus a charge of 6p per megabyte (national) 18p (international).

Although iSDN Manager is great for point-to-point delivery of images, I could not configure it for Internet access via a dial-up account. For this I have a credit-card size Hermstedt Marco PC card which slots into my PowerBook G3. This has been our ISDN Internet access method for two years.

The Macintosh 8100 in which our ISDN card resides also drives our scanners. Although its speed is fine for ISDN, we wanted to use a G3 or G4 to speed up scanning and subsequent image clean-up. This necessitated getting a PCI ISDN card, because Apple no longer use NuBus. Wam!Net do not make hardware but support cards from SCii, Harmonix, SAGEM, OST and Hermstedt. Remembering the ease of use and configuration of the Hermstedt PC card, we opted for a Hermsted Leonardo SL ISDN PCI card with Hermstedt Grand Central Pro software.

The Macintosh 8100, in which our ISDN card resides, also drives some of our scanners. Although its speed is fine for ISDN, we wanted to use a G3 or G4 to speed up scanning and subsequent image clean-up. This necessitated getting a PCI ISDN card, because Apple no longer use NuBus. Wam!Net do not make hardware but support cards from SCii, Harmonix, SAGEM, OST and Hermstedt. Remembering the ease of use and configuration of the Hermstedt PC card, we opted for a Hermstedt Leonardo SL ISDN PCI card with Hermstedt Grand Central Pro software.

The Leonardo SL card not only allows connection to and from other ISDN users but also to and from users of analogue modems. It will also handle faxes. Grand Central Pro is, as its name suggests, like a major railway station, with lines coming in and out and the ability to handle all kinds of trains of all gauges. Grand Central Pro supports a wide range of file transfer protocols from different operating systems and computer platforms, including FTP, iSDN Manager and Z-Modem. It features on-the-fly lossless data compression and a 'batch jobs' option enables files to be sent unattended at cheap call-rate times. The whole thing has 'drag and drop' convenience and every action is recorded in detail in an activity log. When 'talking' to another version of Grand Central Pro at the distant end, a 'FullProof' protocol is able to confirm that data was received exactly as sent. The £300 Grand Central Pro software covers just about any file transfer requirement you may have. Together with the Leonardo SL PCA ISDN card, the cost is £749.

Another very important new piece of equipment connected to our ISDN is an Eicon DIVA LAN ISDN Modem.

This is a network router which links into our 100Mbps Ethernet network, allowing immediate simultaneous Internet access by all seven machines on our network. All that's required is to enter a URL in Netscape or Internet Explorer, using any computer. Incredibly, all seven can surf at the same time with just one ISDN connection and, no, it doesn't crawl along. We use this facility regularly during our Web Page design courses, with all delegates searching the web simultaneously. At £235, this is one of the most worthwhile purchases we have made recently. The Eicon DIVA LAN ISDN Modem even has a 4-way Ethernet hub built-in. If this was 100Mbps, instead of 10Mbps, DIVA LAN would be close to perfect for a small digital photographic studio with up to four Ethernet devices. Maybe they'll uprate it soon?

The really good news about ISDN is that, at last, its installation and running costs are easily affordable and make sense. But it's the added facilities which make ISDN a must.

Occupying a listed building, we really don't want wires festooned around the place. Installing a conventional telephone system would be a nightmare, so we went instead for BT's Diverse ISDN digital cordless system, made in Germany by Siemens. A single 7x7x1.5 inches (18x18x4 cm) box plugs into an ISDN line and a power outlet and controls the whole system. This costs £323.40. Up to eight cordless and two corded extensions may be fitted. At least one Executive Handset is required, to programme the system. These cost £129.99 including VAT but we found them as low as £69.99 -- by mail order from BT.

Diverse Deskphone
Diverse Executive Handset

One of the big advantages of this system and ISDN is 'MSN' -- Multi Subscriber Numbering -- which allows up to ten telephone numbers to be assigned to a single ISDN line. We have five such numbers, the extra four costing only £2 each per quarter. It's easy to programme these numbers to ring selected extensions so, for example, you could have one number for general business calls, one to enable that special customer to reach you direct, one for responses to the ad in the local paper, one for private, one for fax, one for the children…

A maximum of two external calls may be in progress at any one time and these can even be incoming calls to the same number. This diversity factor is very cost effective. What percentage of its time is your fax line actually in use? I estimate that MSN will save us over £400 in analogue line rental in the coming year.

Not only can calls be transferred between extensions but so also can your directory of stored numbers -- no more keying the same numbers into every phone. 'CLIP' is Calling Line Identification Presentation which displays the caller's number (or name, if the caller is one of your stored numbers) and the number to which the call is incoming. This costs £5 per quarter but should be free, as on cellphones.

Digital cordless phones have a range of about 300 metres outdoors but this drops to about 50 metres indoors -- even less if, like ours, your walls are 2 feet thick stone. Just available is a cordless Diverse Repeater (£130) which extends the range and allows the system to behave like a small cellular system. In our case this conveniently reaches our local restaurant, the Horse & Jockey, 200 metres away.

Our total telephone service is now just two ISDN lines. One is the standard ISDN2e, which now carries all our voice traffic. The second is a new 'Business Highway' box which cost £99 to be converted from one of our old analogue lines and offers both analogue and digital connections. This carries our Internet access, Grand Central Pro and fax. Rental is £133.75 per quarter, less £60 per quarter of 'free' calls which bring the net cost down to £73.75 -- the same cost as two analogue business lines but much more versatile.

ISDN -- 'I Suggest Digital Now'.

This article first appeared as "John Henshall's Chip Shop" in "The Photographer" magazine, January 2000.
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