G.Lite could kick DSL into high gear

As Telecom gears up to announce the commercial launch of its ADSL service this week, the ITU has approved G.Lite, a newer DSL standard that is somewhat slower than the RADSL variant being used by Telecom, but withstands poor copper better and can be installed by the user.

The new G.Lite standard for DSL (digital subscriber line) technology has the potential to push high-speed Internet access into homes, but if vendors have their way it also will induce consumers to buy PCs with faster processors.

Although the latter potential is the least mentioned it is, of course, at the core of what vendors are up to in supporting the G.Lite standard, formally ratified yesterday by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Geneva under the designation G.992.2.

Vendors and the ADSL (asymmetrical digital subscriber line) Forum hailed the vote as significant, even if anticipated, and predicted that it would push DSL deployment.

"High-speed pipes drive demand for faster processors," said Mark Peden, an ambassador with the ADSL Forum, which consists of some 300 computer, telecommunications and networking companies. "The lack of these high-speed connections globally is viewed as really holding the industry hostage."

Peden is wrapping up his last week working at Intel, where he was responsible for the company's broadband initiative and will start soon at North Point Communications Inc., a San Francisco-based competitive local exchange carrier focused on DSL service.

Mighty Intel has tossed its chips into the G.Lite ring, along with other hardware and software vendors, as well as networking companies that provide equipment to PC makers and service providers. Telecommunications carriers and Internet service providers (ISPs) are expected to add G.Lite support to their offerings and PC makers are likely to begin shipping machines that incorporate the technology next quarter. Some computers already do support G.Lite, but the technology has to be, in effect, turned on via a software download.

G.Lite technology allows "always on" high-speed Internet access over standard copper lines at the same time as normal telephone service, eliminating the need for "splitters" to be installed outside of homes to handle simultaneous voice and data traffic.

G.Lite supports speeds up to 1.5Mbit/s downstream with an upstream rate of 512K bps. It isn't constrained by problems found in trying to pump full-rate DSL over traditional copper wires, which might not be robust enough to handle high-speed access.

The real lure of G.Lite, though, is that consumers are supposed to be able to install the technology into their PCs themselves, eliminating the need for service calls from the telephone company, or what is called a "truck roll" in industry parlance.

With no need for a truck to roll up to the door with a technician paying a service call, telecommunications companies will be more inclined to quickly offer the G.Lite support because it is less costly for them and, therefore, for consumers. At least that's the working theory behind G.Lite deployment.

Just how easy consumers will find installation of the technology remains to be seen.

"Consumers have got their own issues with PCs,'' said Jeannette Noyes, an analyst at International Data Corp., the Framingham, Massachusetts-based market research firm.

"Many of them aren't all that comfortable with doing it themselves," she said of installation of the technology, adding that consumers also will have to deal with the usual retail channel service issues in the process.

Preparing for G.Lite DSL service in a home may not be as simple as its supporters contend. For one thing, telephone jacks still need to be in the right location. Then, everything else involved in high-speed access also has to work properly, as Noyes learned recently when she became a DSL user and discovered problems with an Ethernet cable that stymied easy installation.

"There's just a lot of points of failure and it's got to work the first time out or it's not going to gain momentum," she said.

That's why vendors are doing plenty of field tests globally to work out any bugs with G.Lite before it is deployed widely into the mainstream.

"There is certainly a learning curve," said Rick Moberg, chief financial officer of Aware a Bedford, Massachusetts-based DSL technology vendor. Aware licenses its intellectual property and software to equipment and semiconductor makers.

While those charged with deploying DSL can figure some things out in labs, certain kinks only show up when the technology is in actual use. Aware was doing some testing in Canada with Newbridge Networks Corp. and discovered a geographic quirk that affected the frequency used by G.Lite.

Canada "is so big that the AM radio stations crank up the signals and those were interfering with the G.Lite signal," Moberg said. "That's something that in a million years in a lab you wouldn't say, 'Gee, Canada is a big place and they have to crank up the AM signal.'"

When the problem became known, the lab crew was able to deal with it and find a fix in short order, he said, adding that such field tests thus far have left vendors feeling encouraged that G.Lite will indeed work.

"Those little hiccups have to be worked through," Moberg said.

The question is whether consumers will be patient enough to allow the hiccuping to subside. Moberg agreed that early adopters should check with service providers to be certain that G.Lite support is available now or will be soon before buying a PC for that kind of Internet access. PCs still will arrive equipped with a traditional modem as well as G.Lite capabilities.

"Once the PC companies are really comfortable that the phone companies are deploying this stuff, we think the dam will break and PC shipments (of machines with G.Lite technology built in) are going to go through the roof," Moberg said.

The ADSL Forum can be reached at http://www.adsl.com/. The ITU, in Geneva, can be reached at http://www.itu.int/. Aware, in Bedford, can be reached at +1-781-276-4000 or at http://www.aware.com/. Intel, in Santa Clara, California, can be reached at +1-408-987-8080 or at http://www.intel.com/. North Point Communications, in San Francisco, can be reached at +1-415-403-4003 or at http://www.northpointcom.com/. Newbridge Networks, in Kanata, Ontario, can be reached at +1-613-591-3600 or at http://www.newbridge.com/.

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