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56-kbps standard seen delayed

Users hoping for help in deciding whether to buy a 56-kbps modem will have to wait at least until January.

    Users hoping for help in deciding whether to buy a 56-kbps modem will have to wait at least until January, as manufacturers at a recent industry meeting failed to adopt standards that will allow 56-kbps modems to interoperate with one another.

    Modem manufacturers and chip companies had hoped to have a preliminary standard for 56-kbps modems, also called a "determined" standard, from the International Telecommunications Union after a meeting in Sun River, Oregon. As expected, intellectual property rights was the main issue that held back talks.

    "The delays in the standards work are not related to technical issues but are related to intellectual property and patent issues," wrote Ken Krechmer, editor of Communications Standards Review, in an email to CNET's NEWS.COM.

    Krechmer said some of the participants were hesitant to license technology from independent inventor Brent Townshend, who has patents pending on key 56-kbps technology. "Modem chip vendors appear to be willing to wait for his patents to issue and review them, before agreeing to [per unit] payments," Krechmer reports.

    Townshend isn't the only one pushing a technology to ensure a slice of revenue from anticipated modem sales.

    "Motorola continues to demand high per-unit royalties for patent rights to modem technology used in existing V.34 modems and [to] propose such technology also be used in V.pcm [the preliminary name for the 56-kbps standard]. Many modem vendors, both small and large, find both of these demands for high per-modem royalties that continue over the life of the patent to be excessive," Krechmer said. The problems with per-unit royalties are that they are not capped and that sales information is basically being passed on to competitors.

    Modems using x2 technology from 3Com (COMS), which earlier this year purchased modem maker U.S. Robotics, don't currently operate with modems based on Rockwell and Lucent's K56flex technology, since standards have not yet been set.

    Modem manufacturers were hoping that a determined standard would be in place so that consumers would know whether 56-kbps modems currently being sold are upgradable to the eventual final industry standard. This final standard is called a "ratified" standard, meaning that all modems are using the same basic technology. Presumably, if consumers know the modems are upgradable to this final standard, they would be more apt to buy them now.

    Because a determined standard was not agreed upon at this month's meeting, consumers should not expect to see a preliminary standard until January 1998 and a final 56-kbps modem standard until mid-1998 at earliest.