At least 28 companies have created a forum which aims to ensure the interoperability of 56Kbit/s modem products as they are brought to market by different manufacturers. But the forum has launched without a central player - US Robotics.
The goal of the Open56K Forum, according to spokesmen, is not to set a standard for 56Kbit/s technology, but to make sure that products developed by its members will interoperate before a standard is established. That may not be so easy in the absence of US Robotics (USR), which is raising questions about whether the group can achieve its goal.
"Our mission is to speed up the adoption of 56K by establishing interoperability among vendors' products," says David Mayes, director of business development for Ascend Communications and a spokesman for the forum. "Any company with an interest in a universal standard is free to participate."
In order for the technology to work, however, end users and their network providers must use compatible equipment. Because vendors have rushed to bring 56K products to market so quickly, at least two dominant and incompatible specifications have emerged: X2, from USR, and K56 , from Lucent and Rockwell, key rivals to USR.
Both specifications have been submitted to national and international standards committees, but the groups are not expected to agree on a standard anytime in the near future.
The forum's prime mover used a conference call this week to entice hundreds of computer, modem and chip manufacturers, as well as telecommunications companies and Internet service providers (ISPs), to join the Open 56K Forum. Alongside Lucent and Rockwell, UUnet Technologies and Compaq have now become members.
But USR and many of its its key supporters, including America Online, were conspicuously absent.
USR is "trying to determine the value of the forum to our customers, and trying to figure out why this forum is more useful than a recognised standards body," says USR spokeswoman Lauri Lentz.
Lucent officials were quick to dispel suggestions that the forum is a vehicle for promoting its K56Flex specification. "K56 Flex is well represented, but that's not a requirement for the forum," said Mike Jacobs, spokesman for Lucent's Microelectronics Group.
At least one major company that supports USR's x2 technology, Hewlett-Packard, is in the forum.
The forum will hold its first meeting on March 27 in New York City. Members will discuss technical specifications for an interim interoperable protocol, as well as criteria for interoperability testing and marketing strategies to keep the public abreast of the often confusing developments in the 56K industry.
Most companies in the forum say products they are shipping today will be software or firmware upgradeable to meet the interim standard, and also to meet the international standard when it is announced. That is expected to be at least a year away.
Further information about the forum can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.open56k.org/.