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Rockwell lines up ISPs

The road to the 56-kbps modem connection is getting complicated as rival camps, Ascend Communications and Rockwell Semiconductor, push their own technologies as de facto standards and line up partners to support their cause.

The road to the 56-kbps modem connection is getting complicated as rival camps push their own technologies as de facto standards and line up partners in support of their cause.

Ascend Communications (ASND) and Rockwell Semiconductor (ROK) fired the latest salvo in what is likely to be a long, overdrawn battle, announcing plans to deliver a fully integrated central-site modem solution that supports 56-kbps connection speeds.

By combining Rockwell's K56Plus technology with Ascend's access switch architecture, the companies hope to thwart growing support for U.S. Robotics' own 56-kbps technology. Ascend says its MAX and MAX TNT wide area network switches will be 56-kbps ready in the next two months.

Both companies are angling to have their chipsets adopted as the single new standard for 56-kpbs modems by national and international standards bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union.

The faster modems require the support of Internet service providers (ISP) because they will have to reconfigure their software to support the 56-kbps protocols. Without an established communications standard, modems from different manufacturers are likely to have interoperability problems, meaning that Rockwell modems will only be able to hook up with ISPs that support its technology; the same is true for U.S. Robotics.

Today's announcement also included a statement of support for the Rockwell technology from 300 ISPs which included UUNet, Earthlink Network, PSInet, and Slip.Net.

In October, more than 30 ISPs endorsed U.S. Robotics technology. These included Netcom, MCI Telecommunications, Prodigy, IBM Global Network, and US West as well as top online services such as America Online and CompuServe.

Lining up third-party support is one thing, but what of the standards process? Rockwell says it has submitted its proposal to the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), a standards body for North America, and is co-editing the specifications with Lucent Technologies and Motorola.

"U.S. Robotics is being left out. They're not very motivated to get a standard quickly. We can probably have a standard in the six-to-nine month time frame, with no controversy," said Armando Geday, vice president of multimedia communications at Rockwell in a conference call. "With controversy, the process could take 18 to 24 months."

Geday was hopeful that U.S. Robotics would work with the TIA but said that their proposal to the International Telecommunications Union is "probably an indirect way of saying they don't want to support a standard" because the Union takes almost two years to adopt standards.

While the new technology is a definite advance in speed for users, Geday warns that customers may be frustrated in their quest for bigger bandwidth. Geday said, "56-kbps technology is being overmarketed by U.S. Robotics. There's not much use of getting one to talk to someone else if the other person has to have the same [kind of] modem."