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Cable modem makers in alliance

A number of big names get together at a trade show to pledge that by late 1998 they will make cable modems that work together as well as dial-up devices.

ANAHEIM, California--A number of big-name companies got together at the cable industry's Western Show to pledge that by late 1998, they will put cable modems that work together as reliably as today's dial-up devices.

The list of companies promising cooperation includes Cisco (CSCO), 3Com (COMS), Bay Networks (BAY), NEC America, Toshiba Multimedia Systems Division, and others.

All are working on making cable modems and equipment used at the service provider's site compliant with the MCNS industry specification, the companies announced yesterday at a press conference. Multimedia Cable Network Systems (MCNS) members constitute a consortium of large cable providers.

MCNS-compliant modems are expected to supplant proprietary cable modems and could even be sold in retail stores just as dial-up modems are today. But the vendors emphasized that consumers must be assured that a modem purchased in a store will work with any service provider's equipment.

"Unlike other [markets], the leading vendors in the cable modem market do have a conscience," said Bob Gordon, an official with Cisco. "We are working hard to avoid camps or different standards," he said, referring to the this year's battle among two competing technologies for 56-kbps modems.

The 56-kbps modem conflict is widely seen as responsible for a downturn in phone modem sales, as consumers shied away from proprietary, incompatible technologies. Cable modem vendors appear to want to avoid a repeat of that situation.

Cisco's presence at yesterday's event was of particular interest. In September, Cisco, Hayes Microcomputer Products, Intel, @Home and Sony, Samsung, and others agreed to work together to deliver compatible products, giving rise to speculation that the Cisco-led group might splinter off from others on MCNS technology.

Instead, vendors are hopeful that cable modem products certified by CableLabs, an industry research consortium, will reach consumers starting in mid-1998.

While the basic technology is in place and a number of companies have been demonstrating interoperating equipment at the show, CableLabs is currently working with vendors to establish a set of tests whereby vendors would bring equipment in, test it with equipment from other vendors, and have it certified as interoperable, said Ken Martin, project manager for an MCNS-related initiative. Martin said vendors are shooting for a mid-1998 deployment of standardized modems.

"We?re hoping to have the certification testing defined so cable operators and consumers can buy in confidence," Martin explained.

The testing is the final step needed for cable companies because, as one executive pointed out, there are a number of issues that still need to be worked on.

"Just because there is a standard doesn?t guarantee interoperability," said Levant Gun, vice president of engineering for 3Com. Vendors need to continually work together to make products work together, and having a large number working together will speed the development process.

One of the largest cable modem vendors, Motorola (MOT), was conspicuous by its absence from the group. Motorola says it is working on MCNS modems and expects to have them available by late 1998.