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USR may join 56-kbps group

U.S. Robotics hinted today that it would join a new group formed to encourage the development of a 56-kbps modem standard.

A new coalition to promote compatible 56-kbps modem technology may get a boost from U.S. Robotics (USRX), the first company to ship 56-kbps modems to market and the largest modem manufacturer.

U.S. Robotics (USR) hinted today that it would join the Open 56K Forum, a day after 3Com (COMS) made a $6.6 billion bid to acquire the company.

"We are very supportive of any standards-setting or standard-influencing process," said U.S. Robotics CEO Casey Cowell. "Robotics would be potentially interested, but I just don't have enough details on it to comment."

3Com, however, is one of 28 founding members of the Open 56K Forum. Most of the other original members are committed to a 56-kpbs modem technology from Lucent Technologies and Rockwell Semiconductor that competes with USR's x2 technology.

The two technologies use incompatible networking protocols. While both sides have agreed to work on a common specification, that won't be ready until next year at the earliest. In the meantime, both camps are fighting to make sure that their technology becomes a de facto standard in the marketplace. The forum is intended to help that process along.

If USR joins the forum, that could shift the group heavily in favor of x2. (3Com is, after all, a founding member.) That might mean a faster resolution of the ongoing effort to define an open specification, or just the opposite, slowing down the effort by creating a 3Com/USR bloc against the Lucent-Rockwell-Motorola forces in the group.

Cowell favors working to set an international standard rather than a U.S.-only or interim protocol. Once the two incompatible 56-kbps technologies are blended into a common standard, upgrading existing modems would probably be easy to do with software, he added.

A spokesman for the Open 56K Forum welcomed U.S. Robotics' interest. "We are very, very hopeful that this is a positive sign for achieving 56-kbps interoperability quickly," David Mayes of Ascend Communications said today. "We are most concerned that this not be used as an artifice to enhance their separate position by doing nothing. We would all have to sit down and roll up our sleeves."

Either way, getting USR to join would validate the newly formed forum. "I believe the Open 56K Forum needs U.S. Robotics more than Robotics needs the Open Forum," said Lisa Pelgrim, a senior analyst at research house Dataquest.

With its 56-kbps modems already shipping, USR has a lead of several weeks in time to market, Pelgrim added, and its modems can be upgraded by software. Further, the Rockwell and Lucent technologies are not fully compatible with each other today, she said, although both sides are working toward interoperability.

The issue of compatibility is important because 56-kbps modems cannot hit their maximum speed unless modems at both ends of the connection use compatible technology. That means users of the fast modems must use an ISP with a compatible modem.

"It is in the best interests of everyone to come up with something that is interoperable," Pelgrim said.

The 56K Forum's goals include assuring interoperability between vendor implementations of 56-kbps modems, discussions of open standards, and advertising efforts to promote them.

"This effort is not intended to exclude U.S. Robotics," Mayes said. U.S. Robotics has been invited to join but has not responded yet, he added. "This is not an us-vs.-them approach to this issue."

Founding members of the Open 56K Forum include 3Com, Ascend, BBN, Bay Networks, Cascade Communications, Cisco Systems, Compaq, Diamond Multimedia, EarthLink Network, Epoch Networks, Hayes Microcomputer Products, Hewlett-Packard, Livingston Enterprises, Lucent, MicroCom, Motorola, Multi-Tech, PSINet, Rockwell, Toshiba, US West !nterprise, UUNet, and Xircom.

"The formation of the Open 56K Forum will help to simplify faster connections to the Internet and reduce confusion in the marketplace, a big step in making 56-kbps a reality for all Internet users," Rockwell's Armando Geday said.

Many participants of the Open 56K Forum plan to bring 56-kbps modems to market in the next few weeks. Several ISP members--BBN, Epoch Networks, PSINet, and UUNet--are conducting field trials of interoperable 56-kpbs equipment based on K56flex, the Lucent-Rockwell technology.

The Telecommunications Industry Association and International Telecommunications Union, are the official standards bodies that will set 56-kbps modem standards.

"The Open 56K Forum is not attempting to supplant those formal, internationally recognized bodies," Ascend's Mayes insisted.

The first Open 56K Forum meeting is planned for March 27 in New York City, when results from the nationwide field trials will be announced. Other subjects may include technical specifications, features, and benefits of 56-kbps transmission, criteria for interoperability testing, advertising of 56-kbps technology, and the benefits of interoperability.