A bitter wrangle which split the world's leading modem manufacturers over. was finally resolved at an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting on 5 February. The format for a new modem standard, V.90, was agreed and the final ratification of the standard should be a mere formality when the ITU meets again in September.
Thanks to V.90, users can now purchase the latest high-speed modems, offering 56Kbps, and incompatibilities should become a thing of the past.
The standard has already had a significant effect on the channel, putting the UK's number two retail modem supplier slot up for grabs.
Until recently, there were two different schemes on the market for offering 56Kbps data throughput over conventional telephone lines. The existence of a new technology that would provide a connection faster than the then current modem standard - V.34+ which offers 33.6Kbps - was revealed on the internet by a group of US-based modem manufacturers, including Hayes and Diamond Multimedia, in 1996.
As it turned out, this news leak was a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that US Robotics was on the verge of launching its own 56Kbps offering, eventually branded as x.2. The likes of Hayes and Diamond, however, were dependent on chipsets produced by Rockwell, which at that point hadn't even thought of a name for its rival offering.
During 1996, most of the leading modem manufacturers were still working on their own 56Kbps variants, but when US Robotics - later acquired by 3Com - launched x.2, they were driven into an unholy alliance. The result was K56flex, a technology seen by the market as being championed by Rockwell and AT&T Lucent.
The reason for introducing the 56Kbps modem was to provide faster access to the internet for what was generally perceived to be a rapidly growing market sector - the home computer owner. These consumers would benefit from faster download speeds because Web pages would appear more swiftly on the PC's screen, even though the upload speed offered by x.2 and K56flex was still only 33.6Kbps.
There was another distinction between this technology and all the previous modem standards - you needed different modems for each end of the connection.
Hence the central site, which in most cases was an internet service provider (ISP), required a different product from the modem sold to the user.
And here was the rub - until x.2 arrived, the central site modem server market was dominated by Ascend. By introducing x.2, US Robotics was able to make a major move on a sector in which it had never been a major player.
The downside from the consumer's perspective was incompatibility. You can't phone into a K56flex central site with an x.2 modem, and you can't phone an x.2 site with a K56flex modem and still achieve a 56Kbps connection.
Eventually, according to Barry Castle, European public affairs manager at 3Com, this incompatibility began to hurt the sales of all modem vendors.
So in December 1997, Lucent and 3Com got together and brokered a compromise which became known as V.pcm (see box page 80).
Effectively, it was V.pcm which the ITU has just voted for as the V.90 standard. Castle maintains that V.90 is roughly 50 per cent x.2 and 50 per cent K56flex.
From a user's point of view, V.90 is good news because in many cases it is just a software upgrade. But the brand of 56Kbps the consumer purchases makes a huge difference. 3Com is adamant that all its x.2 modems can have their Flash memory upgraded through software.
However, the task of simultaneously supporting an existing 56Kbps standard - either K56flex or x.2 - as well as the latest V.90 standard will put a serious strain on the upgrade potential of many modems, which simply won't have enough memory for another modem standard.
Asked if the impending arrival of V.90 is something the company's existing modem line would also be capable of supporting, Dave Curl, head of marketing at Psion Dacom, says: 'No problem, mate. We can handle it.'
Curl claims that as far back as February 1997, Psion Dacom launched its Gold Card PC Card range with 2Mb of Flash memory available with this very problem in mind. 'Payback time must be a coming,' Curl jokes. 'There are a few modem manufacturers that decided to go with only 1Mb of memory and who are going to be unhappy. The next few months are going to be exciting times.'
In reality, payback time has already started. Motorola, which was widely acknowledged to hold the number two slot in the UK with its BitSurfer modem, has pulled out of the market. So the first victims of the upgrade problem are going to be those who bought a Motorola modem. 'Motorola just decided to walk away from the UK,' says John Cunningham, MD of Pace. 'The people who put Motorola's modem channel strategy into place simply aren't there any more.'
According to Cunningham: first, Motorola slashed its price; next it put its operation up for sale; and then it pulled out. He adds that there will soon be an upgrade crisis as users begin to demand upgrades to V.90 which resellers can't supply.
'I don't think that everybody who has promised to upgrade their K56flex modem is going to be in a position to do so,' Cunningham says. However, he is confident that Pace won't be one of the offenders. 'At Pace we can't afford to make promises we can't keep,' he says.
Others make equally bullish claims. 'There isn't a manufacturer in this business that hasn't at some time come out with a buyback or upgrade offer in the desktop modem arena,' says Curl. 'We're confident we're going to make the announcement soon and the upgrade offer will be free.'
The overall consensus appears to be that companies that supplied modems with 1Mb are going to be in trouble, whereas the ones that didn't cut corners and built modems with 2Mb of Flash memory will be fine.
However, there may well be more to it than just using the right components.
'The clever bit is in the memory management,' Curl suggests. 'Our product can handle ISDN, 56Kbps and GSM at the same time. You're going to see our existing customer base remaining happy with the range of choices they've long been accustomed to.'
If the modems they sell turn out to have sufficient Flash memory, the upgrade process will be relatively painless for resellers. Existing stock can be re-Flashed and customers can be pointed towards the page on the internet where V.90-compliant code can be downloaded. As for the task of upgrading the modem, Castle describes the utility that 3Com supplies to perform the task as 'so simple a child could do it'.
The only remaining issue, therefore, is how quickly manufacturers will be able to supply code which they feel is V.90 compliant. 3Com claims it has already conducted compatibility testing with Lucent and Bay Networks.
In other words, tests on code from the x.2 camp and from the K56flex camp have already taken place. 'We expect to begin external betas with key clients within two to three weeks,' Castle says.
Talking to manufacturers from both sides, it seems likely that upgrades will start shipping long before the ITU's ratification in September. With five votes cast against V.pcm and 25 in favour, Castle predicts that some manufacturers will protest that V.90 isn't available yet.
'You have to ask yourself why are they trying to slow it down?' Castle says. He hints that several key rival manufacturers won't be as well placed to provide swift upgrades as his own company.
It's not difficult to see why the major manufacturers see 56Kbps modems as being crucial to their business. Visionquest 2000, for example, has predicted that 98 per cent of modems shipped worldwide by 2000 will be 56Kbps capable, compared to 36 per cent in 1997. IDC has estimated that by 2000 there will be 129 million internet subscribers worldwide, of whom 45 per cent can be categorised as home or SoHo users and a further 15 per cent as small businesses. All are potential customers for modem, rather than leased line or ISDN, access to the internet.
Even more telling is Dataquest's estimate that of the total internet subscriber base, North America had 28.8 million users in 1997, compared to the UK's 1.4 million. It is a huge market for modem makers.
Cunningham believes the V.90 upgrade situation could turn into a support nightmare for dealers that picked the wrong brand of 56Kbps modems to resell. 'Some modem manufacturers which brought their modems to these shores don't give a toss about support and compete simply on price. I'm willing to predict that over the next few months support is going to be the key issue.'
With hindsight, some resellers may come to rue their choice of 56Kbps modem supplier, but if they wish to retain customers at all, it is essential they investigate their supplier's upgrade policy.
'I wouldn't like to be in PC World when a customer comes in waving an upgrade (to 56Kbps) voucher and asks "where's my V.90 upgrade?" when there isn't one,' Cunningham says.
WHY DO WE NEED 56Kbps MODEMS?
To understand how 56Kbps modems came about, one has to bear in mind that the US market dictates the actions of the world's leading modem manufacturers.
Europeans might wonder why a modem, even in the best conditions, currently offers only around 48Kbps in one direction when the ISDN easily achieves 64Kbps.
However, in the US there are only small pools of ISDN availability, in sharp contrast to the UK, for example, where even the Outer Hebrides can get ISDN. Furthermore, in the US a non-standard 56Kbps version of ISDN was offered initially. This explains why modem manufacturers are so keen to market their modems as 56Kbps capable when outside a laboratory no one has yet to achieve a genuine 56Kbps throughput before compression.
With ISDN so scarce in the US, modem manufacturers were forced to continue to develop analogue modems. V.90 modems employ a technology known as pulse code modulation (hence V.pcm). Previously, improvements in a modem's data throughput speed have involved tweaking the existing modulation schemes, but V.90 goes off in a completely new direction.
Basically, it relies on the fact that modern telephone networks are almost entirely digital. The only analogue part is the so-called 'last mile' between your house and the telephone exchange. The closer you are to the exchange, the better V.90 tends to work - which is why different throughput speeds are achieved by different testers.
Pulse code modulation was really intended for use on cable modems which would be attached to the largely fibre-optic networks installed by cable TV companies.
It has just been modified for analogue telephone usage. If there is virtually no copper cabling in the network, PCM works even better. Which is why cable modems using asymmetric digital subscriber loop (ADSL) technology - a close cousin to PCM - can achieve throughput speeds of around 8Mbps.
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