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56 kbps: Caveat emptor

After months of talk, 56-kbps modems are about to ship, but problems still linger for the faster modem technology.

After months of talk, 56-kbps modems are about to ship.

U.S. Robotics (USRX) looks to be the first vendor off the starting line with much-anticipated high-speed modems.

The company says it expects to announce new products in its Sportster line based on their x2 technology the first week of February, with software updates for older modems also available at that time. The release was first promised for January.

However, problems still linger for the technology. A standard for the technology is needed so that modems from different manufacturers can talk to each other. The U.S. Telecommunications Industry Association isn't expected to ratify a standard until late this year, meaning that consumers will have to make sure the modems they buy can communicate with modems used by their service provider to attain the high speed.

In addition, the modems will be limited to a download speed of 53 kbps. U.S. Robotics says Federal Communications Commission regulations "limit the signal level" that digitally connected server equipment can transmit, effectively limiting download speed.

A spokesperson for U.S. Robotics says the company has applied for a waiver from the regulation, but that there is no indication yet of when the waiver might be granted. Whenever the regulations are changed, the modems will be capable of higher speeds, the spokesperson noted.

Cardinal Technologies should closely follow behind U.S. Robotics with new modems that are also based on x2 technology using chips from Texas Instruments (TXN), the company confirmed.

Originally, Cardinal said it would ship modems based on the competing technology called k56flex from Rockwell Semiconductor (ROK) and Lucent (LU). The company says it decided to go with x2 instead because they could have product on the shelves sooner.

Cardinal will later ship 56-kbps modems that are upgradeable to a 128-kbps ISDN modem. The ISDN-upgradeable modems use a custom-designed DSP (digital signal processor) to enable the modem to use the two different standards for communication in the same product.

Lucent and Rockwell have previously said they intend to ship chipsets for the high-speed modems in the first quarter, with a target date of February. Supporters of K56flex technology include Boca Research (BOCI) and Hayes Microcomputer.

Lucent and Rockwell also potentially face the same FCC signal level limit as U.S. Robotics, although the two companies have not shared the results of their tests of the new technology yet.

Motorola (MOT), another large modem vendor, has previously said that it intends to develop and introduce its own 56-kbps modems based on the "impending" but as yet unnamed "V" standard in 1997, and it will offer upgrades from their current 28.8-kbps or 33.6-kbps modems "when a standard emerges."