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Rockwell works toward high-speed modem

Called "ADSL lite," it's based on a technology that has been talked about for some time as a means of high-speed Internet access for consumers.

    Rockwell Semiconductor (ROK) said it is readying modem technology that will enable consumers to connect at speeds which far exceed even today's fastest modems.

    The Rockwell technology, referred to as "ADSL lite" by some observers, is based on a technology that has been talked about for some time as a high-speed Internet access technology for consumers, such as home users.

    To date, standard ADSL technology has been relegated to corporations because of its high cost. Rockwell says its technology will be easy enough for consumers to install and inexpensive enough to be sold at retail stores--perhaps as soon as mid-1998, according to the company.

    Rockwell also says it is trying to address some of the issues slowing DSL deployment, noting that its DSL modem technology eliminates the need for the splitter--a device that allows voice phone calls to be made over the same line that data is being transmitted on--but still allows the modem to be continuously connected to the Internet or network, much like a LAN (local area network) connection.

    A number of communications equipment vendors and chip makers such as Hayes, Alcatel Telecom, Texas Instruments, and GlobeSpan Technologies have been working on slower versions of DSL technology in order to bring down the price of modems and service.

    "This is their [Rockwell's] first attempt at an ADSL 'lite' that is being proposed as an interim ADSL transmission rate to get broader deployment at lower price points. Rockwell is certainly a major chip provider, but they are up against heavy competition," says Daniel Briere, president of Telechoice, a research firm that covers the telecommunications industry.

    Modems using Rockwell technology could be able to achieve "downstream"--data to the user's modem--transmission rates as high as one megabit per second (mbps) while "upstream" transmission rates--data sent out from the user's modem--could reach 128 kbps. Currently, the fastest consumer dial-up modems on the market operate at a maximum rate of about 56 kbps, much slower than the connection speed Rockwell is proposing.

    ADSL was originally developed so that voice, video, and data could be sent over a phone company's standard telephone lines to the user's modem at theoretical transmission rates as high as 8 mbps, while upstream transmission were intended to reach 1 mbps.

    But achieving these speeds presently requires costly equipment to be installed at a telephone company's main branch--in addition to the modem itself--and oftentimes a splitter as well.

    The service itself has been expensive enough that corporations have been the main customers to date, and companies deploying ADSL modems are locked into using equipment from the same vendor that the service provider uses.

    Some of Rockwell's competitors have already announced product plans. U.S. Robotics, which has since been purchased by 3Com, and Texas Instruments announced in May this year that they are collaborating on "hybrid" modems supporting both 56-kbps and high-speed technologies, for instance.

    Hayes and Alcatel said earlier this month that they are working on offering by early next year a network interface card (NIC) for DSL access that would be priced at $250. The modem would also be faster than the modem technology Rockwell is advancing.

    Even though several inexpensive DSL modems are expected to be available soon, Briere expects it will probably be at least two years before consumers go down to stores and buy DSL modems off the shelf. Initially, DSL modems will be offered from telcos as a part of the high-speed service, he says.