US Robotics today announced shipment in North America of its 56Kbit/s modems, a little behind schedule but still ahead of the competition.
The news coincided with an announcement from America Online that it is beginning field trials of USR's 56K modems in selected US cities.
No technical standard has been set for 56K technology, and a race to market has emerged between USR's x2 technology on one hand, and apparently mutually compatible technologies from Lucent, Rockwell Semiconductor Systems and Motorola on the other.
Being early to market is seen as a bonus for USR, since the 56K specification that gains a larger market share early on stands a better chance of being adopted as the standard later, observers have noted. USR delayed shipment of its modems for undisclosed reasons last week, but appears now to have made it to the finish line first.
AOL's tests, to be conducted in selected cities around the US, are designed to see what speeds users can realistically expect from the products, says Barbara Ewen, a spokeswoman for AOL subsidiary ANS Communications. ANS is conducting the tests with another AOL subsidiary, AOL Networks Inc. The results are unlikely to be made public.
The AOL tests will last "as long as necessary" and could potentially involve thousands of users, Ewan says. The tests will be conducted in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, and USR's home town of Skokie, Illinois.
Only users who buy the 56K modems new can take part in the tests, since upgrades of existing USR modems to 56K are not yet available. The upgrades will be available in North America "very soon; no date has been set yet," according to USR spokeswoman Kathleen Behof.
Dates have not yet been set for release of the 56K modems in Europe and the Pacific Rim, but will follow shortly. Meantime, the technology will be demonstrated at the CeBIT trade show in Hannover, Germany, next month.
USR said it has already conducted its own field tests with the modems, and is comfortable shipping them before the AOL tests have begun. "They're ready to go out the door," Behof says.
Observers have noted that 56K may be something of a misnomer for the products. USR and its competitors have acknowledged that the quality of a user's phone line will affect the performance of the modem, and is likely to compromise it in many cases. In addition, in the U.S. a federal law limiting the strength of signals that can be transferred from digital to analog networks limits the speed of "56K modems" to around 53Kbit/s even before transmission has begun.