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ISPs take sides

New 56-kbps modems are on their way into the hands of eager users. But 56-kbps service with these modems is still far from guaranteed.

With 56-kbps modems heading to store shelves, it may mean that what's called the World Wide Wait is nearly obsolete.

But users may have to wait some more.

For the owners of these new modems, 56-kbps speeds are far from guaranteed, partly because of basic technology roadblocks and because Internet service providers are reluctant to commit themselves before a well-defined standard emerges for the faster transmissions.

AT&T WorldNet's Mike Miller on why WorldNet won't offer 56-kbps service right away
NEWS.COM talked to more than a dozen major ISPs to gauge their readiness to deliver 56-kbps service. Their answers made clear that in many cases these "double-speed" connections are still little more than a pipe dream.

One obstacle is the low quality of the signal over local phone lines, a problem that many argue makes achieving 56-kbps speed an unrealistic premise to start with.

The other problem is political and financial: ISPs don't want to commit themselves to the huge expense of upgrading to new equipment until a clear-cut, industrywide 56-kbps standard emerges. After all, what if they spend big to upgrade but end up on the wrong side of the standards question? However, ISPs also don't want users to think they are standing in the way of faster Net connections.

"We're in anguish. It's hard," said Dave Dobell, director of product management at Digex, an ISP that specializes in Internet services for businesses.

ISPs are caught in a dilemma because U.S Robotics (USRX) and Rockwell Semiconductor (ROK) didn't want to wait themselves.

Both companies have developed protocols for transmitting data at approximately 56-kbps. U.S. Robotics' protocol is called x2; Rockwell and its partner Lucent (LU) are promoting a comparable but incompatible technology called K56flex.

Many, if not all, modem manufacturers have already decided which standard to back and are already moving to deliver modems that implement one or the other. But for those modems to provide anything like the speed they promise, they must connect to an Internet service provider that supports the same protocol.

Both sides say they are moving toward a common standard that both camps will support, but there is no clear indication what this standard will be, when it will be implemented, and what level of compatibility it will offer. And until these questions are sorted out, users are left in the position of having to figure out which technology their ISP is supporting in order to get anything close to a 56-kbps connection speed.

56 kbps technology:
Rockwell vs. U.S. Robotics
Modems using USR's x2
Company/Product Price range Ship date
U.S. Robotics
Sportster $199-$219 February
$345-$395 February
56 XF-E $199.95 April
Connecta $199-$219 April
Modems using Rockwell's K56flex
Boca Research
Boca Internet Modem $149-$169 February
Creative Labs
n/a n/a Signed memo of understanding with Rockwell
SupraExpress $189-$199 Selected models ship in March
Global Village
n/a n/a First half of 1997
Practical $209-$299 End of March
Accura $199-$209 End of March
Optima $349 End of March
OfficePorte Under $200 End of March
DeskPorte Estimated at $220 April
ModemSurfr $179 Available now
VoiceSurfr $199 Available now
Zoom FaxModem $219 April

So, under enormous pressure from users and modem vendors to commit, ISPs are trying to guess which technology will prevail while trying to fix more fundamental connection speed problems.

"A lot of the equipment in place puts us in the Rockwell camp, but we have been replacing some Rockwell-based equipment with U.S. Robotics equipment," Dobell said. "It looks like a religious war."

Other ISPs are trying to wait for the dust to clear. "We don't want to get locked into a proprietary technology. It is U.S. Robotics vs. the world at this point," said a representative at a small Santa Cruz, California-based ISP. "We don't want to end up providing the wrong hardware."

Even larger ISPs are trying to stay on the fence. "We are still in evaluation mode. We have not made a final choice," said Steve Dougherty, manager of IT administration and procurement at Earthlink Networks, a major ISP headquartered in Southern California with about 240,000 subscribers.

Some ISPs have made decisions, but not ones they necessarily feel very good about. Netcom, one of the nation's largest ISPs with about 582,000 subscribers, is going with U.S. Robotics, for now. "For now, we are going to go with U.S. Robotics because it has a lead to market and our network is based on U.S. Robotics," said a Netcom spokesman.

But, he added, "if a single standard does not shape up quickly, we will be testing Rockwell as well."

Others have already committed to Rockwell and Lucent, mostly because their infrastructure already relies heavily on equipment from these vendors. "For us, the decision was easy. We're going with a Rockwell-Lucent solution, since we use Ascend for dialup PoPs," said a spokesperson for Epoch Networks, an ISP with about 20,000 subscribers.

If anyone has an advantage at the moment, analysts say it's probably U.S. Robotics. "Major onlines have really sided with U.S. Robotics. I'd say they are still ahead," said Wen Liao, a senior analyst at Jupiter Communications.

But they aren't so far ahead that Rockwell couldn't catch up, and Rockwell has a lot more support from the hardware manufacturing community. (See chart)

Even more unsettling is that ISPs themselves say all this maneuvering may be beside the point. Many warn that even if a user is connected to a service that has declared support for one protocol or the other, users should be wary of the promise of 56-kbps speed.

AT&T WorldNet, one of the largest ISPs in the United States, is suspect of the ability of any ISP to actually achieve 56-kbps speeds.

"Based on our experience, local telephone lines generally do not support 56-kbps data flow very well. Users [of 56-kbps modems] are probably going to find that they are coming out well below 56 kbps," said Mike Miller, spokesman for AT&T WorldNet.

That's why AT&T hasn't committed itself to anything yet. "We don't want to make a commitment to users that we can't fulfill," added Miller.

Many of AT&T's competitors agree that the hope of 56-kbps speed is not realistic. "You need an extremely clear signal to connect at this speed. We see only a one in ten chance of connecting at that speed," said a representative of MetroNet, a California-based ISP.

Others said that they were seeing speeds between 40 kbps and 54 kbps, but the average connection speed currently is closer to 40 kbps than the higher end of the range, according to Louis Trumbour, a network integrator at

ISPs aren't happy about being put in this position. They feel pressured by the two camps and remain unconvinced about which technology is actually better.

"We view all this as the interim until the market straightens out. This depends on the pressure of the marketplace...what customers are [buying]. We'll have early test pools...maybe either or both vendors, U.S. Robotics and Rockwell. I'm irritated at how both sides are handling it," Earthlink's Dougherty said.

Paul Festa contributed to this report.