56K modem standard finally OK'd

By Carmen Nobel 
February 5, 1998 
PC Week Online 
It's all over but the shouting for the long-awaited 56Kbps technology

The International Telecommunications Union, which has been meeting in
Geneva, has completed the technical specifications of the standard for
56Kbps modems. 

The standard, known as v.pcm, was formally approved Friday. Still, it will
take a few months before products are truly interoperable and the standard
is officially ratified. 

It took 11 months for the ITU to reach an agreement, a relatively short
period as far as standards are concerned, but not a moment too soon for
users and industry observers. "The industry has really been hurting for
months from the lack of a standard," said Ernie Raper, an analyst at
VisionQuest 2000, in Moorpark, Calif. 

The 56Kbps modems, introduced in late 1996, can receive up to 14 pages of
single-spaced text per second. But sales have been badly disappointing,
however, because modem makers could not agree to a single standard. 

Until now, two competing and non-interoperable 56Kbps technologies --
K56Flex from Rockwell Semiconductor Systems Inc. and Lucent Technologies
(LU), and x2 from 3Com Corp. (COMS)/U.S. Robotics-have been slugging it
out. The lack of interoperability has made some users and Internet service
providers gun-shy about buying into 56K before a standard was set. 

Vendors plan to ship standard-based products before the end of the first
quarter, even though ISPs may not yet be hooked up to support them, and it
will take one more meeting in September for the ITU to officially ratify
the standard. 

"I expect the marketing wars to get products out to be fierce," said Lisa
Pelgrim, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif. 3Com, for its
part, plans to be the first out of the gate before the end of the first
quarter with a shipment of v.pcm modems along with upgrade software for
existing x2 modems. 

"Once a draft standard is set, everybody goes ahead and ships their
products," one 3Com official said. "[The] September formal ratification ...
is just a formality." 

That may be so, but additional software upgrades are likely to be necessary
before all v.pcm modems are truly interoperable. "V.pcm products and
upgrades shipped in advance of Sept. 15 ... may require additional upgrades
to conform to the final standard," said Ken Krechmer, technical editor of
Communications Standards Review, of Palo Alto, Calif., who attended the
Geneva meeting. "But v.pcm products are usually software upgradable, so
such adjustments should be simple for early purchasers." 

Some users, however, remain justifiably wary of software upgrades, having
been burned in the past. "It's always good to have a standard [because] it
makes it easier for me to transfer files to other people without having to
worry that they have the same hardware as I do," said Jeff Mintun, an
analyst at Six Flags Theme Parks Inc., in Grand Prairie, Texas. Mintun's
3Com Sportster modem was incapacitated by a buggy update last year. 

"As far as upgrading to it, I'm certainly not going to take their word for
it that it's going to work," he said. "I have the flash ROM downgrade that
I had to use the last time an upgrade didn't work--and it'll stay close to

The ITU agreement will boost modem sales significantly, industry executives
said. ``Modems are something people don't understand, so they tend to turn
to experts,'' including consumer magazines, said Neil Clemmons, vice
president of marketing at 3Com's personal communications division. ``This
opens up the OK from the press to buy the modems.'' 

Partly based on this agreement, the number of modems shipped each year
likely will rise to 75 million by the year 2000 from 50 million in 1997,
according to VisionQuest 2000, a market researcher. 

Reuters contributed to this report.  

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Last noodled with March 1998.
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