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56-kbps modem standard on tap

The battle over competing 56-kbps modem technologies is expected to end this week.

The battle over competing 56-kbps modem technologies is expected to end this week as modem manufacturers gather in Geneva, Switzerland, to vote on a standard that allows all 56-kbps modems to communicate with each other.

By Friday, members of the International Telecommunications Union are expected to ratify a preliminary, or "determined," standard for 56-kbps modems. A determined standard is the step required before a final, official standard can be issued, with the vote on a final standard normally being a mere formality.

This should once and for all dispel a pall that has been hanging over the market ever since the first 56-kpbs modems arrived in early 1997. Incompatibility between the two major modem technologies led to a fractured market, forcing users in many cases to choose between one of the two technologies when trying to connect to an Internet service provider.

Consequently, the market for 56-kbps modems has not developed as quickly as vendors hoped since some consumers have been wary of buying non-standard technology. Moreover, a number of modem vendors have suffered poor financial results because of slower-than-anticipated sales.

Since early 1997, all major modem manufacturers have been offering modems that can deliver data at 56 kbps, about twice the speed of widely used 28.8-kbps modems. But without any technology standard, modems using 3Com's x2 technology can't work with Rockwell or Lucent's K56flex modem technology.

A determined standard would set the stage for vendors to release modems that can work together using what is being called "v.PCM" technology. New v.PCM modems could be available as soon as March, with software upgrades for current 56-kbps modems available as soon as late February.

"Emerging access technologies such as xDSL and cable modems, while of considerable importance in the longer term, require new or modified facilities and new pricing policies before usage can be wide spread," said Ken Krechmer, editor of Communications Standards Review. "With a draft formal standard completed, V.pcm modems will quickly become the most common way to access Internet networks and are likely to remain so for some time," Krechmer believes.

Members expected to be present in Geneva include Rockwell, 3Com, Lucent, Texas Instruments, and Hayes.

Many major PC manufacturers such as Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are expected to be represented as well.

Communications companies reached a tentative agreement on standardizing the 56-kbps modem technology in December of last year at an industry association meeting in Orlando, Florida, setting the stage for this week's announcement.

A number of companies have already started working together to make sure that their v.PCM modems are interoperable with those of their competitors.