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Users lose in 56-kbps standards war

The demand for faster modems is reaching a fever pitch and it looks like modem makers are melting under the pressure.

The demand for faster modems is reaching a fever pitch, and it looks like modem makers are melting under the pressure.

In a rush to bring to market the high-speed modems users want, the companies are sacrificing concerns about whether all the new hardware will work together and bypassing other thorny issues that may leave buyers confused. Users will get their fast modems, but will they know which one to pick?

There are a slew of new modems coming out this quarter from a handful of vendors that all claim to deliver data at 56 kbps. Under ideal conditions, the new modems will be able download data at rates up to twice that of 28.8-kbps modems but will still be limited to 33.6 kbps for uploading data.

But these modems run by virtue of implementing new networking protocols that support 56-kbps data transfers. The problem is that there are two different and competing protocols for making the modems work, and hardware vendors are split on choosing which camp to support.

The crux of the problem is that modems both at the user's site and at the central access site must match to hook up at the maximum speeds. A user with a modem built on top of U.S. Robotics' X2 technology, for example, can't use an Internet service provider that supports Rockwell's k56flex technologies.

The companies are trying to reach an agreement about a common standard but it won't be here for a while, possibly as late as the end of the year. In the meantime, modem vendors are rushing ahead with 56-kbps modems to try and establish themselves in what will clearly be a huge market.

If the two camps don't come to an agreement soon, however, it's the customer who will have to make the hard decision about which technology is really better and then find an ISP who agrees with them. Except maybe for buyers with a degree in customer science, that's not going to be easy.

U.S. Robotics claims that more than 70 percent of online service users will be hooked up to providers that use its x2 technology. The company says that all the major online services--America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe--and many large ISPs such as Netcom, MCI Communications, IBM Global Network, and US West have already come down on its side.

Principally because of this argument, Cardinal Technologies is using X2.

But Rockwell isn't sitting on its hands. It also claims a long--though not quite as illustrious--list of ISPs as well as modem makers that have announced support for its K56 technology.

Hayes Microcomputer, as well as Shiva and Cisco, which make remote networking products for small offices, corporations, carriers, and ISPs, have all declared support for the other side: k56flex technology.

In addition, Rockwell has lined up the support of computer manufacturers such as Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba.

When (and if) industrywide standardization becomes a reality, modem manufacturers are aiming for upgrades to a standardized connection through software that would coincide with upgrades at service providers' sites. This would be possible for newer software-upgradable modems sold in the last several months. But again, it is still not clear how soon standardization will happen.

But doubts about the technology don't stop here. There are some general problems with modem technology that can affect a modem's capability to connect at 56 kbps, no matter which standard a user ends up with.

A number of factors can limit connection speeds. The connection from the user's modem to the ISP's central site remains the source of most problems. The analog local loop, as it is called, is the copper wire connection between the telephone central office and the user's home. This is the only nondigital part of the connection section and is subject to environmental factors such as the quality of the wiring and the distance from the central-site modem, both of which can limit both download and upload speeds.

Another issue is that there must be no conversions of the digital signal within the local network. Most PBX (public branch exchange) systems introduce additional digital-to-analog conversions. This may be an issue mostly where a portable computer is dialing out through a hotel's phone system, for instance.

Also, the modems will initially have a slightly lower maximum connection speed than originially promised. U.S. Robotics says a download speed of 53 kbps is the current limit because of Federal Communications Commission regulations. The company does expect that the regulation will be changed and that the modems will be fully capable of 56 kbps in the downstream direction.

In spite of its limitations, consumers may decide that any possibility of increased speed is worth the risk involved in purchasing a 56-kbps modem. Indeed, it appears that the market will move to this technology quickly. A recent study from Jupiter Communications says that over 50 percent of the access market will be using 56-kbps modems by 1998, which is a remarkably fast rate of adoption if the prediction comes true.