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AOL offers 56-kbps modems

AOL Networks will roll out 56-kbps modems over 65 percent of AOLnet, opting for the x2 standard from U.S. Robotics.

AOL Networks, the network subsidiary of America Online (AOL), today said it would begin broadly deploying 56-kbps x2 modem technology from U.S. Robotics, now part of 3Com (COMS).

AOL Networks plans to roll out the x2 56-kbps modems over 65 percent of AOLnet, the name of AOL's dial-up network for its Internet access customer base. The upgrades will include a large purchase of U.S. Robotics' Total Access remote access hardware.

News of the rollout follows the May Microsoft Network announcement that the provider will begin field trials for 56Kflex modems, a 56-kbps technology floated by Rockwell and Lucent Technologies.

AOL said it would upgrade 120 cities by the end of August and 200 by the end of September. International x2 field trials are being considered, starting with sites in Japan and the United Kingdom.

The news couldn't come sooner for those AOL members who have been trying out the high-speed modems on AOL for several months. An internal AOL bulletin board was full of postings from members crying for more access numbers so they could dial into the network on their high-speed modems without making toll calls.

"Where are the x2 access numbers???" one post began. "Is AOL trying to force customers to switch ISPs? How many customers has AOL lost because of this everlasting 'field trial' issue? A friend of mine just canceled his AOL account and switched to an ISP with local x2 access...I, and many others, will be doing the same thing if AOL doesn't come up with more x2 access numbers."

While the early adopters have been clamoring for better access, they currently represent a very small portion--less than one percent--of AOL's 8 million members, according to Matt Korn, AOL's senior vice president of operations.

But by 1998, the online service expects many more members will convert to higher speed access. That is an essential part of AOL's overall strategy, he said. The next version of its online software, AOL 4.0, dubbed Casablanca, will contain many elements, such as chat, radio, and video streaming that require broader bandwidth connections. And the faster the connection, the faster people will be able to do business online, freeing up space for more users to log in.

In the last six months or so, AOL members have heavily adopted higher speed modems with more than 50 percent of the membership logging in with modems that are 28.8 kbps or faster, Korn said. Less than 10 percent are still logging in with modems that are slower than 14.4 kbps, he added.

"We're getting out in front, getting the network prepared. This Christmas may well be the Christmas where you see a lot of 56-kbps modems under the tree. We expect to see a very broad acceptance of these modems in 1998. It's very important for us to continue to have a network that is state-of-the-art."

A standard for 56-kbps modems is expected soon, but modems made by U.S. Robotics and those made by Rockwell-Lucent currently do not interoperate.