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56-kbps standard here

Modem manufacturers finally settle the battle over competing 56-kbps modem technologies.

In Geneva, a city long known for hosting diplomatic negotiations, modem manufacturers have finally settled the battle over competing 56-kbps modem technologies.

As expected, members of the International Telecommunications Union today accepted a preliminary, or "determined," standard that will allow 56-kbps to communicate with each other.

The determined standard, dubbed V.90, sets the stage for

 
Motorola VP Vedat Eyuboglu on the new standard
vendors to release compatible modems as soon as March, with software upgrades for current 56-kbps modems available as soon as late February.

But it won't happen automatically or even right away. "Despite V.pcm's certain future role as the new 56K modem standard, early testing has revealed [compatibility ] is not automatic between differing [versions of] V.pcm," according to a joint statement yesterday from Hayes, Cisco Systems, and Ascend Communications. Prior to today's announcment, the determined standard being referred to as "V.pcm."

As a result, these three companies have said they will release new V.90-only products when compatibility can be demonstrated between major modem and Internet Service Providers.

3Com is also supporting


Eyuboglu on when vendors will ship product
 
the standard, as are most of the major modem chip makers, including Rockwell Semiconductor and Texas Instruments.

3Com announced compatibility testing with Lucent Technologies and other modem vendors in January. The company is also well into the process of conducting field trials for V.90 products worldwide, the company said.

All the fuss over standards is rooted in one basic problem for consumers: incompatibility between products from leading 56-kbps modem manufacturers. To date, users in many cases have been forced to choose between one of two main modem technologies when trying to connect to an Internet service provider (ISP).

Analysts are upbeat about the new standard.

"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," said Ken Krechmer, editor of Communications Standards Review.

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. Once the formal standard is adopted--probably in September 1998--products and upgrades shipped before that date may require additional upgrades to conform to the final standard, experts say.

Modem vendors are relieved that the standard has been approved, having seen their financial results diminished because of slower-than-anticipated sales of modems and associated chipsets.

"A lot of people have bought 56K modems, but there has been some confusion out there....The perception of having a standard is going to allay some of the fears people have," says Moiz Beguwala, vice president and general manager of the personal communications division at Rockwell.

With the standard, people will have more freedom to choose their ISPs, he said. More important, customers will have an easier time connecting to the Internet because ISPs are will have more modems for people to connect to. Many had divided their capacity between the two different technologies but can now offer one 56-kbps technology on all lines.

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