Market Eager for 56K-bps Modems

The new year will bring several new technologies, including one that Internet surfers, remote users and telecommuters have been salivating over: 56K-bits-per-second modems.

The modems, which will work with standard telephone lines, are expected to offer transmission at almost twice the speed of the 28.8K and 33.6K-bits-per-second modems on the market.

Industry observers said the modems are a promising technology that will at least serve as an interim technology until Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and faster cable modems make it to market.

The 56K-bits-per-second modems would save money and raise productivity on the faster connection times, the observers said.

But questions about the technology are being raised, even before products hit the market.

"On paper, this technology theoretically holds great promise, especially for those who want to get faster speeds but who can't or don't want to commit to ISDN," said Sanjay Mewada, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.

However, Mewada said issues such as questionable interoperability and a lack of standards among modem manufacturers loom.

"Without standards, these products will not truly be plug and play," Mewada said. "And can these modems really deliver the speeds they are promising? A lot will depend on the telephone companies' ability to support these new modems."

Phone companies -- including Southern New England Telephone -- are conducting trials with the technology. To optimize the modems, the telephone companies need to make several changes, including implementing the technology in central offices and reconditioning the lines to remove noise and latency the lag time in data transmissions.

The technology currently will work only "downstream" allowing the user to download information from the Internet at 56K bits per second but not to send. On the upstream, users get 33.6K-bits-per-second speeds.

Al Watrud, manager of telecommunications at CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, Wisconsin, raised many questions as well. He said his company has explored many solutions, including ISDN, to allow the company's 5,000 employees nationwide to communicate.

"If you can truly get 56K technology for a reasonable price, it might well be worth it," Watrud said. "A lot of people will be interested because of the availability. And if [the modems] run across voice circuits, then it will be a good solution.

"But I wonder: Will the phone companies truly support this technology?" Watrud added. "We'll probably kick the tires on these products when they come out because once people hear about them, they will want them."

The following are some of the recent 56K-bits-per-second announcements:

-- HarvardNet, a Boston-based Internet service provider, has announced Personal 56K, a service that uses the new technology. Although 56K-bits-per-second modems aren't yet available, users with standard modems will get faster performance because of more robust connections, according to HarvardNet.

-- Logicode Technologies Inc. in Camarillo, California, earlier this month announced a 56K-bits-per-second modem. Versions of its Quicktel and Quicktel II modems will ship Jan. 15. Pricing isn't available yet.

-- Creative Labs Inc. in New York earlier this month said it is developing 56K-bits-per-second modems and videoconferencing products with Rockwell International Corp.

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