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Intel, Sony, 3Com unveil cable plans

PC and electronics giants are detailing developments for a new generation of easy-to-use cable modems.

At the National Cable Television Association trade show in Atlanta this week, companies such as Intel, Sony Electronics, and 3Com are detailing plans for producing a new generation of easy-to-use cable modems.

The companies are hoping to promote Internet access via cable modems by making them easier to use than today's standard dial-up modems--one key factor in eventually enabling the industrywide goal of letting consumers purchase cable modems at retail stores.

Intel and Broadcom will collaborate on developing a design for cable modems that use a new "plug-and-play" connection technology that is now starting to appear on personal computers.

The connection scheme--called USB, or Universal Serial Bus--allows easy installation of cable modems. Typically, installation of cable modems is a time-consuming and expensive process done by cable company employees. With a USB-enabled cable modem, a consumer would theoretically be able to simply plug the cable modem into a PC.

Broadcom isn't the only company working with Intel on cable modems. Last year, the chip giant said it was developing cable modems with @Home and Cisco Systems in an effort to encourage the availability of high-speed Internet access.

But making high-speed Internet access widely available will take more than a USB connector on a modem, though. Internet service providers must have compatible products so that the devices that can "talk" to one another.

Since last year, leading cable equipment vendors have been working on making cable modems and equipment used by ISPs compliant with the DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications) industry specification. The standardization effort is being headed up by CableLabs, a cable industry consortium.

Once certified, DOCSIS-compliant modems could be purchased by consumers and used with any service provider's equipment. At the moment, 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.

Broadcom said modems based on the new reference design will be DOCSIS-compliant.

Meanwhile, Sony said it is demonstrating its new DOCSIS-compliant modems at the NCTA trade show.

"Multivendor [compatibility] is a key issue in this emerging industry, particularly due to users' demand for a product that works seamlessly with their service," said Dick Komiyama, president of Sony Electronics' computer components and peripherals group, in a prepared statement.

The modems could download data at up to 42 mbps and send data back out to networks at up to 10 mbps, a much higher rate compared to the maximum 53-kbps download speeds possible with dial-up modems. Sony said its modems would be available later this month in sample quantities, with mass production slated for in the fall of 1998.

In related news, 3Com announced today that Tele-Communications Incorporated subsidiary TCI.Net will purchase DOCSIS-compliant cable modems and other equipment as TCI adds Internet service capabilities to its cable networks.

TCI is the largest cable operator in the United States with some 15.7 million customers, though only 500,000 of those customers now have access to high-speed Internet access through cable modems.

The deal, which was reported last week by CNET'S NEWS.COM, also includes equipment purchases from Bay Networks. General Instrument, and Thomson Electronics (which sells products through the RCA brand name) will supply cable modems as well.

While there will be a large initial order for modems, vendors will eventually be competing for business on retail shelves, where 3Com will likely do well because of its well-known U.S. Robotics brand.