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Intel driving low-cost cable modems

The chipmaker is collaborating with other companies to create inexpensive "host-based" cable modems that rely on a PC's main processor and memory.

High-speed cable modems may become cheaper in the near future as a result of an Intel initiative now coming to light.

Intel is working with Libit Signal Processing and possibly other partners to produce a futuristic breed of devices called "host-based" cable modems.

The devices would use the computer's main microprocessor and memory for some functions, rather than requiring the separate processor, memory, and operating system normally needed by a stand-alone modem. Because fewer chips are needed, they are potentially less expensive and easier to upgrade than traditional hardware modems.

The effort comes at a propitious time for the cable movement: After a long and arduous process, cable modems based on industry-approved standards should be available by the end of the quarter. As a result, the long hoped-for move to sell cable modems in a retail market may finally start to develop in 1999.

Cable companies are moving to provide high-speed Internet access with lower service and equipment costs. As such, compatible products based on the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications) standard are needed so that the devices can "talk" to equipment from a variety of vendors.

Last week at the CableLabs Financial Analyst briefing in Denver, Colorado, representatives from Motorola, Samsung, Thomson Consumer Electronics, and other organizations were on hand to say that they expect cable modems will be certified as interoperable by March or early April, with large orders from cable companies coming soon thereafter.

Once certified, DOCSIS-compliant modems could be purchased by consumers and used with any service provider's equipment. Currently, some stores in limited areas of the United States carry cable modems for sale, but generally they can be used only with an ISP in that region. (See related story)

According to industry research, about 520,000 households now subscribe to a cable modem service. Leading cable Net access providers include @Home and RoadRunner.

"There have been some delays [in the certification process], but it's self-evident that things are moving quickly now," said an optimistic Mark Stubbe, vice president of Samsung's networking division.

In fact, with the availability of certified modems around the corner, some in the industry are worrying about the next step: signing on retailers. Many retailers are angling for a slice of the monthly subscriber fees the cable companies would garner in return for helping advocate cable modems. Cable operators, who are not yet making profits on the service, are balking at the idea, creating a potential roadblock for wider interest in the service.

Patti Reali, a telecommunications analyst with the Gartner Group consultancy, said the cable operators should avoid that battle and focus on signing deals with PC manufacturers, since they are most able to offer service to those most likely to be interested. Dell Computer, in fact, has already signed a deal with @Home to pre-install cable modems in some systems.

The Intel-Libit effort is an effort to at least get the ball rolling.

"A focus for us is to get the cable world engaged in thinking about host-based modems. That's what will get the cost and the market moving," said Jacob Tanz, vice president of worldwide sales for Libit.

The companies are exploring ways to use the main processor to control networking and security functions, while the modem itself would still need chips to interpret signals from the network.

An Intel spokesperson declined to elaborate further, except to say that Intel "wants to see broadband deployed" and confirm that the company's research labs are working on reference designs for host-based cable modems, meaning the company is not signaling an interest in actually selling modems itself.

Technical documents describing how such a modem would work is reportedly expected to be submitted to CableLabs by March. A prototype modem is slated to be shown at an industry show in June.

As usual, Intel's interest in so-called "software" cable modems lies mainly in driving sales of its chips: With higher bandwidth connections, users would presumably download more processor-intensive multimedia content.

The company is involved in a number of similar efforts to migrate formerly discrete functions into the main processor. For instance, the company has demonstrated Pentium processors playing back DVD movie titles without the need for a separate MPEG-2 playback chip, and is investigating a host-based DSL modem as well.

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