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TI joins DSL rush with new chip

The new chips will be targeted for use in networking equipment needed by phone companies to implement high-speed DSL service.

Texas Instruments (TXN) today said it will begin offering new a chipset for use in products that offer Internet access and other data services via high-speed DSL (digital subscriber line) technologies.

The new chips will be targeted for use in networking equipment needed by phone companies to implement DSL service, as previously reported, but will also be offered for use in consumer modems.

The core of the chipset is a DSP (digital signal processor), a specialized chip for processing specific kinds of data at high speed, as opposed to more general-purpose processors like Intel's Pentium. TI is eyeing this fledgling market as some of the largest computer companies prepare for entry later this year. (See related story).

"DSP processing power allows us to jam more [data] bits into the existing copper [phone wiring]," said George Barber, vice president of computer and network products at TI. "Programmable DSPs have already reshaped the modem market," he observed.

Barber estimates that by the end of 1998, 90 percent of dial-up modems will have DSPs in part due to the ability to rapidly upgrade to new communications standards.

Through the use of high-powered DSPs, equipment vendors such as Westell will be able to incorporate two modems into a single piece of hardware for use in central phone office sites, TI says. Also, the modems will be software upgradeable to new DSL standards, including DSL 'lite' technology, and TI has plans to make the DSL chipsets compatible with current dial-up modems. Overall, TI thinks its new chipsets will help lower installation cost for the telcos.

TI is further banking on growing interest in DSL technologies for the mass market. With the formation of a new consortium this week called Universal ADSL Working Group, a number of computer and telephone industry giants are working on promoting what is called "Universal," or DSL lite, technology.

With DSL lite technology, data can be delivered to a home user over the existing phone infrastructure at a rate of up to 1.5 megabits per second (mbps), around 30 times faster than can be delivered through 56-kbps modem technology. Also, costly specialized equipment called a splitter won't be needed at a subscriber's location, which is currently the case with DSL modems. Full-fledged DSL can operate at over 6mbps, but costs more to install.

These and other issues surrounding the need to update equipment at the central office will put a damper on expectations of widespread DSL deployment anytime soon, analysts say.

"There are all sorts of issues. It's a very firm technology, but people shouldn't operate on the assumption that everybody will have DSL in their home by the year 2000," says Lawrence Gasman, president of Communications Industry Researchers. Other technologies will compete for customers, including cable modems and dial up modems, he says.

Which competing technology gains broader usage will "have to do with telephone companies competing against cable companies, using their marketing clout to persuade consumers to go one way or another," Gasman surmised.