Modem makers jump on 56Kbit/s bandwagon

Modem manufacturers are lining up to claim they can build devices that will work at 56Kbit/s over a standard telephone line.

Following a claim from Rockwell Semiconductor Systems' last week that it has developed modem technology that will allow users to download data from the Internet at up to 56Kbit/s over a standard telephone line, several manufacturers have said they will incorporate this technology into new products.

Hayes Microcomputer, Boca Research and Diamond Multimedia Systems all expect to release products based on Rockwell's technology next year. US Robotics is also rumored to have entered the contest, although a company spokesman won't confirm that.

For consumers, the development is likely to mean faster downloading of data from the Internet. It may also mean an extended life for the analogue modem market, which is increasingly under threat from recent technologies like cable modem and ISDN, which transfer data at up to 128Kbit/s.

But most analysts warned that the new technology will only achieve its full potential under certain circumstances. "It's basically a device that will extend the capabilities of existing V.34 modems and will work where the telephone connection is good, " says Vern MacKall, a senior analyst for data communicatons at IDC. "It's not earth shattering, but it will extend the life of analogue modems, and the vast majority of users are analogue and they have a pent up need for a faster connection to the Internet."

Unless both parties in a connection have high speed analogue modems, 56Kit/s can only be achieved for data going downstream, MacKall says, adding that Hayes has predicted upstream transmission of about 14.4Kit/s for its modems. That will enable Internet users to download Web information at up to twice the speed of current V.34 modems, but will not enable voice-to-voice connections, which require a symmetrical set-up.

Rockwell says its technology takes advantage of the fact that Internet service providers are connected to a local telephone company's central office by high-speed digital connection. "The only analogue portion of the total connection is the short distance from the user's home to the local telephone company's central office," Rockwell officials say. Both the Internet service provider and the end-user must use modems that incorporate the new technology for the 56Kbit/s data transmission to be achieved, they say.

However, the high-speed modems will depend on the quality of the line in a users' local telephone loop, a few analysts says.

"They're taking a gamble that on a short haul connection between home and central office, the copper will be clean enough that they can extend the analogue capability," says John Girard, a research director at Gartner Groups Network Center in Stamford, Connecticut. "In that, they're making a giant assumption."

Because the quality of local telephone lines varies so much, Girard says he would not recommend Rockwell's solution to remote users of corporate networks. "If I'm a road warrior calling into a central office from a hotel room, I see no advantage to this," he says.

As for home users, "If I'm going to buy new equipment and I'm a home user, why buy an analogue modem? With ISDN, although it's two to three times as expensive, I get two or three usable lines, and they guarantee 64Kbit/s. Rockwell doesn't offer a guarantee," Girard says.

Rockwell says it will demonstrate the transmission capabilities at the November Comdex show in Las Vegas. The technology is significant because it bridges the gap betwen analogue and digital standards, such as the 64Kbit/s ISDN, currently used by a number of Internet service providers (ISPs) and generally regarded as too costly for the home user, MacKall says.

Rockwell intends to submit its technology to standardisation bodies in the hope of establishing a world wide standard, officials say, a process likely to take "many months," according to Dataquest analyst Lisa Pilgrim. However, Pilgrim says, it is plausible the modems will be available by next year as the companies claim. Pricing is likely to fall between the cost of V.34 modems -- about US$150 -- and the price of an ISDN terminal adaptor, which runs at about US$350, MacKall says.

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