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Chipmakers focus on DSL modems

New silicon for high-speed digital subscriber line modems is being introduced by many leading chip manufacturers, which should lead to broader use of DSL.

Follow the major chipmakers, and they will lead you to DSL.

New silicon for high-speed digital subscriber line modems is being introduced by many leading chip manufacturers at the Supercomm trade show in Atlanta, as the industry now focuses on making DSL modems work together.

Texas Instruments and Analog Devices are introducing new chipsets for DSL modems. Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices and Virata, another chipset maker, said they are working on a reference design kit for the rapid development of asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) modems.

Also, as an added impetus to the industry, multimedia heavyweight Creative Labs is taking the plunge into the broadband market with its first DSL modem for consumers.

Taken together, the announcements portend the fulfillment of the promise of broader availability of DSL in 1999, which is only now starting to gain momentum. Such modems are designed to provide high-speed Internet access over regular phone lines, competing primarily with technology that delivers fast connections through cable television pipelines.

G.lite for the masses
G.lite, the consumer-ready version of asymmetric digital subscriber line, was adopted in October. The standard essentially means that there is a way for individual consumers' modems to talk with standards-based modems installed by telephone companies. Now it's up to companies to finish testing their products to make sure modems can work together.

"It's taken awhile for ADSL to get going because of [compatibility] questions and standards compliance," said Vic Jayasimha, director of business development for Analog Devices. "[Telecommunications companies] are reluctant to commit unless there is interoperability with other equipment manufacturers. That is one of the last issues blocking mass deployment."

However, the industry as a whole is close to overcoming that issue, he said. For its part, Analog Devices said partnerships with Cisco, Nortel, and Lucent have helped to accelerate deployment of compatible equipment.

The cable industry has also been working to certify modems as compatible, with the benefit being that the market for broadband services is expected to develop more quickly.

So far, the cable-modem market is ahead of DSL in terms of subscribers. Paul Kagan Associates projects that the cable industry will install 1.1 million cable modems in the U.S. this year, bringing the year-end total to 1.6 million. By contrast, there are still fewer than 100,000 DSL customers nationwide. The availability of standards-based DSL technology should help close that gap, analysts have said.

Meanwhile, to fuel mass deployment, chip companies are churning out new chips and new designs for these "back-end" modems used by telecommunications companies and Internet service providers. These chips allow modems to be designed that save space and power consumption, and ultimately, cost the DSL service providers less money to deploy.

Analog Devices said its new DSL chipset cuts in half the number of chips required, from four to two. The chipset is also compatible with applications the telecommunications companies have written for previous-generation chipsets from Analog, which will serve to enable faster deployment at reduced cost. The company said volume shipments are scheduled for the fourth quarter of 1999.

Texas Instruments is also planning on a new chipset which addresses the need to increase the number of modems available in a small space. TI said that the chipset can allow four lines of full rate or G.lite DSL connections, or any combination thereof. An integrated ARM processor can handle modem management functions in real time, allowing all the components needed--including the line drivers that actually send a signal to a consumer's modem--to be integrated on a circuit board about half the size of previous boards.

"Space is basically money. If they [chipmakers] can do more with less, and they can reduce power consumption," service providers can offer DSL service to more subscribers for less money, according to Laurie Falconer, DSL Analyst with Telechoice, a communications consultancy.

By the first half of 2000, TI expects to have a chipset that provides eight lines of DSL or regular phone service on the same line for a further reduction in real estate and cost, said Ben Sheppard, a product marketing manager for TI.

TI said volume production of the new chips is planned for later in the third quarter of 1999.

Eventually, DSL modems at retail stores
Increased availability of DSL service doesn't mean anything if consumers don't have a way to get the modems. In the past, technicians have had to install DSL modem technology for consumers, creating an "installation bottleneck" that has limited the spread of DSL and cable modems alike. G.lite technology makes it possible for consumers to install their own modems, either by installing a card in the PC or by hooking it up to a port on their PC.

Creative said it is going to offer a DSL modem both at retail and to PC makers. The company may wind up being one of the first large and better-known modem makers to offer DSL technology in stores.

"Up to this point it has been very difficult to use DSL modems. It has really required that somebody come to a house and have a splitter installed," said Raj Johal, vice president of Creative's Digicom subsidiary. "G.lite is the first [DSL] technology where it makes sense to have these available through retail, just like a regular modem," he added.

However, the modems will only be available in areas where DSL service is being offered. Johal said the company would announce partnerships in that area when the modems themselves become available during the third quarter of 1999.