Battle over 56-kbps modems

U.S. Robotics is suiting for a battle on a new standard for 56-kbps modems against rival Rockwell International.

3 min read
U.S. Robotics (USRX) is suiting up for battle on a new standard for 56-kbps modems against rival Rockwell International, while Net users and technology companies are anxiously waiting for the faster transmission speed to come to market.

U.S. Robotics today officially announced a new modem that will almost double current connection speeds over standard telephone lines. The faster modems, dubbed x2, will require the support of Internet service providers because they will have to reconfigure their software to support the 56-kbps protocols. More than 30 ISPs have already endorsed the new modems.

The top online services, such as America Online and CompuServe, joined ISPs such as Netcom, MCI Communications, Prodigy, IBM Global Network, and US West in making today's announcement with U.S. Robotics.

"We plan to aggressively deploy this new technology across the IBM Global Network's more than 500 local calling points in the United States," said Gary Weiss, general manager for the network.

The announcement may amount to an upset against modem vendors that threw their weight in September behind a different 56-kpbs modem chipset from Rockwell. These manufacturers include Cardinal Technologies and Hayes Microcomputer Products, as well as Shiva, a maker of remote networking products for small offices, corporations, carriers, and ISPs. U.S. Robotics modems are built around a chipset from Texas Instruments.

But without an established communications standard, modems from different manufacturers are likely to have interoperability problems, meaning that U.S. Robotics customers will have to hook up only with the ISPs that support its modems; the same goes for Rockwell. And because customers are likely to view this unfavorably, both companies are angling to have their chipsets adopted as the single new standard for 56-kpbs modems by the International Telecommunications Union.

U.S. Robotics says it has already submitted a proposal to the ITU. With today's announcement of ISP support, the company has probably gained the upper hand. After all, said John Grangaard, an analyst with GS2 Securities, the company already has a significant portion of the consumer market and a potential customer base of some 10 million more people if they all buy U.S. Robotics modems.

ISPs, for their part, are anxious to be perceived as helping solve the one of the Net's biggest problems: lag time, particularly with the exponential growth of rich multimedia content on the Net.

"We feel one of the biggest limitations is [slow] bandwidth," said Tom Firman, director of technology for MSN. "To be able to go to 56 kbps on analog lines is a very exciting development." MSN is in discussions with U.S. Robotics and is looking to upgrade some of its sites with the new technology, Firman added.

The 56-kbps technology can overcome the speed limits of current modems by using telephone companies' digital switches. Under ideal conditions, the new modems will be able to deliver transmission rates up to twice that of 28.8-kbps modems.

By using technology known as V.42 compression, they can increase data-transmission speeds to 224 kbps for downloading information and 115.2 kpbs for sending information. ISDN connections, in contrast, provide up to 128-kpbs data connections and cable modems up to 10 mbps.

U.S. Robotics will conduct field trials in November and begin shipping the x2 to ISPs and online services, as well as directly to consumers, during the first quarter of next year. The company did not announce cost, but Grangaard estimates that the new modems will be priced competitively at $250 to $300 for the basic model and $400 to $450 for a full-featured modem.

The company says that any Sportster 33.6 modem purchased after August 15 will require hardware upgrades for faster speeds, while the V.Everything modem will be upgradable with a software download.