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DSL modem standard due soon

The standard may be set by Friday, which would help bring high-speed Internet access to more homes.

Consumers may move a step closer toward high-speed Internet access at home, as a preliminary standard for digital subscriber line modems is expected to emerge by the end of the week.

Participants in the standards setting process, including representatives from companies such as Intel, report that a preliminary, or "determined," standard for DSL modems will likely be set by Friday at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union.

A variety of companies are collaborating on a standard for so-called G.lite DSL modems, which would offer consumers download speeds of up to 1.5 mbps.

This is many times faster than today's 56-kbps dial-up modems and close to speeds achieved on cable modems. The DSL standard would ensure that all DSL modems could speak with one other, meaning that customers won't have to worry about what technology to buy.

DSL standards "will be a major step towards the availability of reliable, compatible and maintainable ADSL [asymmetric DSL] products," Ken Krechmer, technical editor of Communications Standards Review, wrote in a report on the proceedings.

"One of the keys to the mass deployment is standardization, which allows a situation where an end-subscriber can comfortably buy a modem and be reasonably assured that they [can move to a different location] and have it work," agrees Claude Romans, senior analyst with communications consulting firm Ryan Hankin Kent.

Estimated number of cable vs. DSL Net subscribers
Year Cable DSL
1998 260,000 112,000
1999 500,000 380,000
2000 1,000,000 1,000,000
2001 2,000,000 1,900,000
2002 4,000,000 2,600,000
Source: Telechoice Incorporated

Currently, a customer ordering DSL service typically buys a modem from the service provider that is compatible only with its network equipment. If a customer moves out of the service area, he or she could be stuck with an expensive piece of equipment that doesn't work in his or her new location.

By next year, a DSL standard is expected to bring a larger range of vendors to choose from, resulting in more competitive pricing; also, more consumers will be sampling and buying DSL service in retail stores.

Another plus for customers: convenience. DSL modems permit users to surf the Net and talk on the phone at the same time, making it especially attractive for the home and small-office workplace.

There is "cautious optimism" a standard will be determined this week, said Holland Wood, senior product marketing manager of Intel's Architecture Labs. A set standard for DSL modems--which includes standards for several other faster DSL technologies in addition to G.lite as well as existing DSL modems--is a prerequisite before a final standard can be issued. The final standard would be ratified in June if this week's meetings go as expected.

Catching up to cable
In terms of competing with the cable industry in the race for subscribers, DSL players are still in catch-up mode, Romans said. "The [cost] of DSL service is still too high, and operators will have to lower them to encourage mass deployment."

The G.lite technology will factor significantly in that effort to lower prices, he said.

Nonetheless, product proliferation and competition will drive prices down. Romans estimates that telcos are deploying around 230,000 modems in central office locations this year along with the ability to install up to 550,000 DSL modems. Modem standards likely will help propel adoption of DSL modems in the U.S. market to around 1 million subscribers by the year 2000, according to estimates from TeleChoice.

In 1999, users should expect more service rollouts as well as deals between PC makers and telcos for "DSL ready" computers that come bundled with deals for Internet access. While DSL standards will speed adoption of the high-speed data service, access from cable modems will still be more prevalent, analysts say.

The G.lite DSL standard eliminates the need for a telephone company to install a piece of equipment called the "splitter" at a consumer's residence--an expensive proposition. Upcoming modems will simply plug into the back of the PC, as analog modems do.

Romans notes that operators are already going ahead with deployment of proprietary DSL technology because the upcoming standards-based products will be able to work with older DSL modems.

Standards battle keeps low profile
The move for a DSL standard has come about quietly, especially in contrast to the posturing and wrangling that occurred in the battle to establish a standard for 56-kbps dial-up modems.

"One of the things we learned from [last year's battle] is to get the intellectual property matters dealt with before closure of the standard," Wood said.

This past January, Intel, Microsoft, Compaq, and a consortium of telephone providers including US West and SBC Communications formed the Universal ADSL Working Group (UAWG) to advance DSL standards.

The group held technical meetings to work on the technology outside the usual ITU meetings, which Wood thinks helped speed the adoption process.

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