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56-kbps modem standard delayed

Concerns about intellectual property rights postpone the adoption of a preliminary standard.

    Consumers waiting for modem manufacturers to adopt standards that will allow 56-kbps modems to work with each other may encounter a longer wait than expected.

    A preliminary standard for 56-kbps modems from the International Telecommunications Union, also called a "determined" standard, was originally expected next month, but now appears to be headed for delays as companies raise concerns about intellectual property.

    "What they [the standards committee] are hung up on are a variety of intellectual property rights issues. Everybody is extremely anxious to complete this work, but a variety of companies are getting advice from their lawyers indicating that they can't move forward without proper business arrangements," says Ken Krechmer, editor of Communications Standards Review, a technical journal. Kerchmer, who has been observing the standards organziations for 20 years, says that the issues have essentially delayed a "determined" standard by two to three months.

    Modems using 3Com's U.S. Robotics brand modems with x2 technology don't currently operate with modems based on Rockwell and Lucent K56flex technology, since standards have not yet been set.

    A determined standard from the ITU would allow consumers to ascertain whether certain modems from companies such as 3Com and Hayes are upgradable to the future standard. This future, final standard is called a "ratified" standard, meaning that all modems using technology based on the standard can communicate with each other.

    "When we have a stable [that is, determined] draft, then everybody will go off and build it, try it with each other, and see where it doesn't work," says Kerchner. Three to six months after the determined standard is when companies "will actually be capable of delivering stuff that's compatible," he says.

    The current lack of a standard has discouraged some consumers from buying modems altogether, or purchasing older 33.6-kbps modems, as they wait for a standard to be set.

    "[Many] consumers out there are waiting for a fully ratified standard that guarantees these modems will be interoperable...They don't want to get caught holding the bag with a modem that can't be upgraded," says Kieran Taylor, an analyst with TeleChoice.

    "Once consumers know there is a determined standard, that would give them a degree of confidence that products supporting that specification would be capable of supporting the fully ratified standard," Taylor says.

    In the meanwhile, users can expect to see continued glitches with 56-kbps modems, as happens with any new technology.

    "Early on, there were many companies shipping upgradable modems," says Mark Derrick, systems administrator for HiWaay, an Internet service provider in Alabama. "Our experience with modems that [needed] a hardware upgrade from v.34 [33.6 kbps modems] with a chip replacement to 56-kbps is that they are having problems connecting [at the higher speeds]," he cautions. Derrick notes that the problems apply to both U.S. Robotics and Rockwell-based modems.

    In June, 3Com's U.S. Robotics made upgrades for most of its non-56-kbps products available. Upgrades for the Sportster Winmodem products, originally slated to be available in late April, had slipped several times and users reported being frustrated with poor customer service.

    Prior to those problems, in April some modem companies using Rockwell Semiconductor's competing K56flex technology had to hold back modem shipments until May due to problems with chipsets. Some of those modems reached consumers, who had to return their recently purchased products.