Patent battles hold up creation of 56Kbit/s modem standard

The arrival of an international standard for 56Kbit/s modems may be delayed for months. That's the word from the International Telecommunications Union committee that's been hammering out a standard for the fast modems. A spokesman says 'issues related to intellectual property than technical issues' are the sticking point. The x2 and K56flex camps are at loggerheads and 'neither camp wants to make it appear that the other side has won.'

The arrival of an international standard for 56Kbit/s modems may be delayed for months.

That's the word from the International Telecommunications Union committee that's been hammering out a standard for the fast modems.

Disagreements over patent issues may prevent the committee from keeping to its timetable of having a draft recommendation early next month, according to Les Brown, who heads the ITU's Expert Group.

"It appears to me that we're stuck more on issues related to intellectual property than technical issues," Brown says. "I think neither camp wants to make it appear that the other side has won.... The major players want to feel that they're not going to be at a disadvantage."

Those two camps in the standards process, of course, include supporters of the x2 protocol from 3Com/US Robotics, and the K56flex consortium led by Lucent and Rockwell. The ITU committee had hoped to sign off on a draft standard before it wraps up four days of meetings on September 8. That "determination," as it's called, would then be ratified by the full ITU study group at its next gathering in January 1998.

The point of all these meetings is to finally enable the two flavours of 56Kbit/s technology to speak the same language. But Brown says that right now the committee is split over "data mode mapping schemes," and may not be able to come to a resolution anytime soon.

"I'm not as optimistic as I was," he says. "It's still possible to pull it all together, but it's really going to boil down to when the camps are willing to make a compromise. When that happens, things will happen quickly. So if that happens in the next couple of weeks, then we'll probably get a recommendation process at the September meeting. If it happens a month from now, we may decide to follow two paths, maybe do a TIA interim standard in the U.S., as well as determine a recommendation in January. If it doesn't happen before January, well then things really get delayed."

3Com vice president Joe Dunsmore has downplayed the committee's internal conflicts, saying it's par for the course in setting standards.

"There's a lot of people involved, and there's a lot of different intellectual property contributions that are made by the various companies," he says. "We're in that process, and I would say it's too early to predict whether we'll actually meet the goal of September or not. The companies involved are trying to move in that direction."

Dunsmore says the lack of an international standard hasn't slowed customer adoption of 56Kbit/s modems. He reports that 3Com's sales of X2 modems are ramping up several times faster than the sales of V.34 modems did.

David Takata, a research analyst with investment firm Gruntal and Company, says most 56Kbit/s modem makers are offering free upgrades to the ITU standard - whenever it appears - and that savvy marketing ploy is boosting sales.

But many buyers have been put off by the modem wars, and they want to see an international standard soon, says Les Jones, an employee at an Internet service provider who maintains a Web site about 56Kbit/s modems.

"I think if there was a standard, it would eliminate a lot of the confusion," says Jones, "And people could get past the x2 versus K56flex question and start saying, 'Which modem do I like best? Which is best for my needs?' Which is where people need to be."

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