The humble modem is under threat. A raft of digital data communications devices, and upcoming wireless communications technology could make the modem extinct in a few years.
The key lies in the growing popularity of several new technologies, all of which promise widespread digital communications without a high cost. The first is PCS (Personal Communications Services) which has been successfully pioneered in the UK and throughout Europe as Global System for Mobile (GSM).
PCS allows data communications to take place directly between digital devices such as the communications ports of PCs and properly-configured wireless PCS communications devices. This eliminates the need for a modem and provides a better rate of reliablity and improved speed due to the whole lot being digital.
Modems modulate and demodulate signals as they go down a phone line, turning digital information in the computer into analogue sounds that are retranslated into digital information at the other end. With PCS, this step is not needed.
According to the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration - the primary federal agency working on the definition and development of the Internet - the rolling out of PCS services will change the way people conduct data communications, particularly in a mobile setting.
In Canada, another digital technology that could hasten the demise of the modem is also making headlines. Known as Local Multipoint Communications Systems (LMCS), it is a wireless technology designed to allow people to receive cable TV without cables. It also enables the 'beaming' of people into an office by video conference from their home or workplace and the provision of high-speed Internet access without a phone line.
Industry Minister John Manley introduced a policy on LMCS in February and in which he called for licence applications for companies to provide communications services using the technology. Canadian consumers can now get a range of broadcast and telecoms services from their local telephone and cable television distribution networks. Recent breakthroughs in technology mean that each will soon be able to compete with the other in offering a full range of services. LMCS will offer a competitive third choice.
'We are responding swiftly to this new technology so that Canadians benefit from innovative services, market competition and increased choices,' says Manley. 'LMCS also gives us a chance to consolidate our world leadership position in telecommunications, exporting our knowledge and services to create jobs and growth at home.' Manley predicts that the LMCS technology will create new private sector investments and new jobs, employing 12,000 to 15,000 Canadians within 10 years.
Another technology that could have a big impact on the future of the modem is IRDA (an acronym for the Infrared Data Association - the industry consortium that established this standard).
Infrared (IR) communications, based on technology similar to that popularised by handheld remote controls, is designed to offer a convenient, inexpensive and reliable way to connect computers and peripheral devices without cables. A set of standards for IR communications has been agreed upon by IRDA, which comprises many component, computer system, peripheral and telecoms vendors.
IRDA connectivity is incorporated into most new notebook PCs, including IBM's Thinkpad and Hewlett Packard's Omnibook ranges, and is being touted as the most cost-effective and easy-to-use support available for wireless technologies.
IRDA wireless communications links are now standard on popular printers from HP, personal digital assistants from Apple and HP, most notebook computers from and some intriguing new devices that could end up being another killer of modems.
To start with, the IRDA compliant PDAs, notebooks and printers are devices which can be bought today, while the next generation digital communications devices just released by the likes of Nokia and Ericsson will depend on the growth of PCS and GSM networks to support them.
Nokia, for example, recently announced a pact with AST in Canada to offer a wireless communications system that will be available later this year to run on the PCS digital communications infrastructure.
The AST/Nokia strategic alliance will see AST's Ascentia notebook computers supporting Nokia's new 2190 digital PCS phones (already available in the UK and Europe). This will allow users to send and receive email, faxes, voice messages and computer files, as well as paging services and access to the World Wide Web and Internet mail. And all this will be done using the infrared IRDA port on the Ascentia, so that no cables need to be run between the notebook computer and the digital phone.
Once again, since the connection itself is digital, there is also no need for a modem in the notebook computer. The portable PC phone has an optional expansion cradle, the Nokia Xpander, into which Nokia's PCS Data Card fits. The PCS Data Card works with the phone to establish and maintain the connection to the wireless PCS system, and an IRDA port on the expansion cable facilitates wireless communication between the Nokia system and the notebook computer.
As the connection is being made via a standard IRDA port, the Nokia system will be able to be used with any kind of PC that offers IRDA communication, including the majority of leading new notebook computers and handheld computers. And as the system does not require that any modem be present in the computer itself, handheld computers that would traditionally not have the voltage necessary to run high-performance PC Card modems can now communicate wirelessly.
This comes on the heels of an announcement by IRDA in November of connectivity to the Microsoft Windows 95 operating system. The IRDA support software for Windows 95 has been available for downloading from the Internet since November at no charge and will be included in future versions of the operating system.
The impending arrival of all these non-modem-based solutions to the issues of wireless data communications should give many modem manufacturers (and the people who sell them) pause for thought. While the huge interest in the Internet and the World Wide Web has driven strong modem sales over the past couple of years, this business has become increasingly low-margin as prices have dropped and increasing numbers of computer manufacturers have started to include modems as standard equipment.
These wireless communications systems suggest that some modem manufacturers, which do not find a way to transition their businesses to recognise the potential impact of the changes they will bring, may end up falling by the wayside.
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