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DSL rivals join forces to create compatible products

Several top equipment and semiconductor manufacturers that produce gear for high-speed Internet access will work together to create the OpenDSL initiative.

It may soon get easier to access the Internet's fast lane.

The digital subscriber line (DSL) industry announced today it has created the OpenDSL initiative, which will work toward getting rival companies' products to work together.

Several top equipment and semiconductor manufacturers that produce gear for DSL, a high-speed Internet access technology, are behind the move, including 3Com, Cisco Systems, Intel and SBC Communications.

The OpenDSL group is charged with ensuring interoperability of equipment and modems made by rival companies, as well as striving toward technologies that can be easily installed by average consumers.

The initiative marks the first time that local phone companies, DSL competitors and the gear makers that supply them have come together to test and certify the technology. Analysts said the group is sorely needed to speed installations and cut costs in the DSL industry, particularly now that many companies appear to be willing to forsake G.lite, a DSL technology that allows consumers to install the service themselves. G.lite's popularity has yet to take off.

The cable industry has a similar body, CableLabs. That group tests and certifies cable modems and other high-speed, or broadband, Net access technologies as compliant with industry standards.

"The DSL industry is finally taking a page from cable's playbook. This is basically trying to do what CableLabs has done in recent years," said Michael Harris, president of Kinetic Strategies, a broadband market researcher.

Although the DSL industry already operates under several transmission protocols and standards, no one has been able to make sure that various companies' gear actually meets those standards and also works well with other equipment built to those specifications.

"The existence of a standard doesn?t guarantee product interoperability," Harris said. "There's been no central testing body in the DSL industry until now."

The OpenDSL group has told analysts it expects the first DSL modems to be certified as interoperable--or compatible with competitor technologies based on the same standard--by the first quarter of 2001. However, some analysts believe a year from now is more realistic.

Still, the OpenDSL group may serve to fill a major void in the DSL industry.

"OpenDSL will allow providers to install more consumers quickly and will help to reduce some of the long intervals that customers are currently experiencing," Martin Jackson, a board member on the DSL Forum, a trade group, said in a statement.

For one, DSL service is time consuming and costly to install, requiring a technician to personally configure the technology for most customers.

In addition, the industry hopes to attract more customers more quickly by eventually offering modems and self-install software in retail stores. Today, consumers can purchase in certain retail stores a cable modem based on a standard called DOCSIS, but DSL customers have no equivalent product to buy at the retail level.

Retail availability of modems can't happen unless the modems are certified to work with any service provider's network anywhere in the United States, but it's a goal the DSL industry must embrace if it hopes to catch up with cable in the high-speed race.

About 3.2 million consumers use a cable modem in North America today, compared with roughly 1 million who use DSL, according to Kinetic Strategies.

Some analysts said the newly formed initiative is even more important now that G.lite appears to have lost its earlier momentum. The industry adopted a slower-speed version of DSL that could be installed without the help of a technician, but many Internet service providers are steering clear of G.lite because it is not fast enough to support streaming video and other advanced applications expected in the coming years, analysts said.

Specifically, the OpenDSL initiative will provide a centralized certification lab to test for bugs and interoperability. The group will work to develop a standard for software to configure the modem for use on any given network. The so-called self-installation software is integral to speeding installation times, which currently can take two or three months.

The service providers know they must speed up launch times or risk losing customers to cable or other high-speed Net access technologies such as satellite or wireless.

"The OpenDSL initiative will greatly accelerate our ability to deploy services. By providing a solution for interoperable, 'plug-and-play' equipment, OpenDSL will ultimately allow us to focus less on managing and testing the (modems) and more on the business of getting DSL service out to our customers," Mark Dunn, chief technology officer at Digital Broadband Communications, said in a statement.

Agreeing on a standard will also allow service providers to more effectively compete on price against cable operators. Most consumer broadband services today cost about $40 to $60 per month, though those prices are expected to continue falling.

"The big issue for service providers is that once you settle on a standard," Harris said, "you can keep your costs lower."

In related news, Alcatel, a major DSL gear supplier, announced today that it shipped equipment for delivering DSL service to 1.1 million consumers during the quarter that ended June 30. The French company has shipped gear serving a total of 3.5 million DSL connections worldwide.