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V.90 modem standard approved

But fallout from the standards battle may be difficult to reverse. Meanwhile, the FCC wants to let 56-kbps modems run at full speed.

    The International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, Switzerland, yesterday gave final approval to V.90 industry standard 56-kbps modem technology, but industry analysts warn that damage from the lengthy standards battle which preceded this detente may be difficult to reverse.

    Supported by both Rockwell and 3Com, V.90 was initially agreed upon in February. At that time, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), remote access hardware vendors like Ascend Communications, and modem vendors fell in line to adopt the new technology.

    It was a much-needed accord. Before V.90 was established, consumers had to choose between 56-kbps modems using either 3Com's x2 or Rockwell's K56 flex technology. Users then had to find an ISP that supported the modem technology they had purchased. It also caused many ISPs to refrain from supporting 56-kpbs modems because of the reigning confusion at that time.

    Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed changing old rules so that digital 56-kpbs modems are allowed to operate at their maximum speed.

    FCC rules that limit the power of devices that operate on the nation's phone system prevent these modems from operating at speeds higher than 53-kbps.

    The rules, adopted in 1976, were created to prevent interference to people's telephone conversations. But the lines have improved and the limits aren't needed anymore, the FCC said.

    While hailed by industry players as a solution to compatibility issues between the two technologies, V.90 is still exhibiting teething issues, as glitches with the recently released iMac from Apple Computer have shown.

    Users of the new computer reported having trouble dialing in to ISPs, a fact that Apple attributed to ISPs not having implemented V.90 code in all systems.

    Additionally, as has been the case from the start, connection speeds typically only reach between 40 and 42-kbps due to existing phone line conditions--and there are other lingering compatibility issues between 3Com and Rockwell-based V.90 technologies, according to support technicians at ISPs who have spoken to CNET News.com.

    Most major industry players already support V.90 despite the ongoing issues, but that hasn't entirely changed the resistance on the part of some customers. So, yesterday's announcement of formal ratification of the standard is more than just a formality to some, as it offers further reassurance to conservative corporate customers and consumers waiting to buy 56-kbps modems.

    Additionally, 56-kbps modem prices, which were slashed as consumers waited out the industry standards battles, are now expected to stabilize.

    "This is not token, not symbolic," said Lisa Pelgrim, an analyst with Dataquest. "This had to happen, as the happy ending to a tumultuous battle," between competing 56-kbps technologies from 3Com and Rockwell.

    "Sales slowed because early adopters were alienated because there was no interoperability," Pelgrim said. "Non-early adopters were just confused."

    Modem vendors, who have seen sales slow and prices plummet as customers waited for a standard, believe an established technology will convince the last conservative individuals and notoriously risk-shy corporate purchasers that V.90 is the end of the 56-kbps modem saga.

    "What this does is effectively get rid of the last hurdles any customers would have," said Rick Hartwig, 3Com senior product manager for 3Com's modem division, especially corporate customers who offer remote access to company intranets and databases through dial-up lines, and have to equip portable computers with PC Card modems.

    Hartwig claims that the number of V.90 points-of-presence, or telephone dial-up numbers, has already increased five times faster than for X2, the company's proprietary version of 56K modem technology, and will continue on that path now that the standard is final. "We are continuing to see fast sales, and high consumer confidence will take us into" the first Christmas season with one 56k modem standard, he said.

    According to Rockwell officials, the company has been shipping v.90 software since it was determined in February. They believe the final determination should encourage ISPs to broadly adopt v.90 technology.

    Still, the formal adoption of the V.90 standard will not be an overnight panacea for vendors, Pelgrim warns. "There's not going to be any magic" solution for struggling modem vendors, she said.

    "The standard will help to restore confidence, which will help to restore demand," she said. "But the vendors cut prices on products across the board and profitability has gone down rapidly. Shipments will increase, but not necessarily revenues--the profit margin damage is already done."

    CNET News.com's Tom Dunlap contributed to this report.