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Industry infighting thwarts DSL progress

A bitter struggle among equipment manufacturers is threatening new industry rules that could make high-speed Internet connections less expensive, easier to use, and available to far more people, sources say.

A bitter struggle among equipment manufacturers is threatening new industry rules that could make high-speed Internet connections less expensive, easier to use, and available to far more people, sources say.

The infighting centers on the so-called G.lite standard, which is designed to simplify modems used for digital subscriber line (DSL) connections--a high-speed Net technology that uses ordinary phone lines. Because the market is littered with different technologies, manufacturers need to make products that can work together seamlessly to speed wide-scale adoption of DSL.

This type of conflict is common with emerging technologies, but rarely are the stakes as high as they are today. High-speed access is largely associated with the growth of the Internet itself, and billions of potential dollars hang in the balance for those companies that come up with the winning solutions to break the widespread bottlenecks across the Web.

Moreover, the rhetoric is particularly rancorous in the G.lite debate. Critics say G.lite modems don't work well with current technology, according to service providers, and some manufacturers are now fighting to see their own products adopted as the industry standard.

"In some cases, these [technologies] can't even communicate," said Bill Kirkner, chief technical officer for Prodigy, an Internet service provider. "It's not just that you need a G.lite modem. You need a G.lite modem from a specific manufacturer. And that's the same as no standard at all."

On the other hand, "To have an absolute standard that leaves no variation in the way that equipment vendors can make their equipment is not practical," said Bill Rodey, vice president of the ADSL Forum, the leading group backing the new rules for consumer DSL modems.

While equipment makers argue over how to best implement the G.lite standard, competition from high-speed cable modems is intensifying. The cable industry has already established a standard set of rules for cable modems, giving the group a leg up on its DSL rivals.

According to TeleChoice, about 160,000 DSL lines were in use by the end of the second quarter of 1999, with 73 percent of these in residences. Cable modems have reached well over 1 million users.

The lack of a universally accepted standard could slow the spread of DSL, just as telephone companies and Internet service providers like America Online and Prodigy ramp up their marketing machines to push high-speed Net services across the country.

One in the same
Many industries push for technology standards, or rules, so that different companies create products that can work with each other. For example, VHS is a standard for videotape. A VHS tape cassette will play on any VCR machine that is built to handle that certain type of tape, regardless of the company that manufactured the VCR.

In the communications world, standards are critical. If a consumer buys a modem, it must work with his or her computer, as well as the ISP.

Analysts echo the industry concerns. "Without a standard, you can't get to the point of popularity reached by [ordinary] analog modems," said Claudia Bacco, an analyst with TeleChoice, a high-speed Internet consulting firm. "People need to be able to buy a computer at CompUSA, take it home and plug it in, and have it work with their ISP."

The Internet and computer industries coalesced around the G.lite standard for consumer DSL several years ago. It was ratified by the International Telecommunications Union as the worldwide set of official technical guidelines last June.

The standard is aimed at making DSL relatively cheap, as it would allow a consumer to buy a modem and plug it into a PC, rather than wait for a phone company technician to install it. The challenge is to make sure that modems and other equipment made under the G.lite standard all work together.

Testing in the lab
Under the auspices of the ADSL Forum, the University of New Hampshire has set up a lab where companies like Intel, Alcatel, Lucent, and others can test their modems against each other and against other products.

Some companies already say they comply with the standard, and some computer makers--led by Compaq and Dell--have already begun shipping machines with standardized DSL modems that conform to G.lite rules. The modems still won't work with all ISPs and telephone company equipment, however.

The ADSL Forum group says it hopes to have all the main equipment manufacturers on the same technical page next year.

For their part, the big telephone companies--the firms that will invest the most money in DSL equipment--are testing G.lite technology and hope that manufacturers will end their differences as soon as possible. In the meantime, most phone carriers are using different versions of DSL on an interim basis.

"This has taken the interoperability process to a whole new level," said Bev White, GTE's manager of product development. "It will take time to sort it out."