March 28, 1997 10:00 AM ET
56K modems make progress; standard edges closer
By Scott Berinato

  For users looking to connect to LANs or the home office at higher than normal transmission rates, 1997 is shaping up as a good year.

A standard for common 56K-bps modem transmissions will be completed earlier than expected this year, and early users of U.S. Robotics Corp.'s x2 56K-bps modem are reporting solid, albeit lower than promised, connection rates.

"I think a watershed moment in all of this was 3Com [Corp.], a standards-driven company, purchasing U.S. Robotics," said Virginia Brooks, an analyst at Aberdeen Group, in Boston. "It's not so much a we-they situation anymore. [3Com] could really shape up U.S. Robotics and bring some kind of compliance with a standard."

One Telecommunications Industry Association committee member said a standard could come as soon as late summer. The various 56K-bps technologies contain minute differences, mostly in startup and negotiation sequences, he said.

So should users prepare to buy x2 modems or rival K56Flex modems? "[All the companies] will have to change a little bit; everyone will have to twist their code to make it work," said Ham Matthews, a member of the TIA's TR30 committee, which has hashed out nearly all the technical details of a standard. "The back channel will be 33.6[K bps]--that's been decided upon."

Meanwhile, Internet service provider Mindspring Enterprises Inc., of Atlanta, has reported connection results of 1,900 calls on x2 56K-bps modems.

Users' feedback has been positive concerning the augmented bandwidth despite its falling under promised speeds, said Robert Sanders, Mindspring's chief technology officer.

"I think users feel like every little bit helps," he said. Mindspring will also support K56Flex in some areas. "The overriding feeling we're getting from users is confusion, though--with a little bit of irateness," Sanders added.

The confusion stems from holes in users' understanding, Sanders said, including how to download an upgrade and when the service will be available in any given area.

Users are generally upset when their new 56K-bps modem gives the dreaded "Multiple Codec in Channel" message when connecting. It means there is more than one analog-digital conversion in the phone line; thus 56K-bps modems won't work.

While U.S. Robotics' x2 continues a solid showing--the company recently signed licensing deals with PC makers Gateway 2000 Inc. and Packard Bell NEC Inc.--competing K56Flex technology is in disarray.

First, a shipment of 56K-bps chips from Rockwell Semiconductor Systems Inc. was halted because they would not operate on phone lines that contained "digital pads," sources said. Motorola Information Systems Group recalled affected modems, offering free trade-ins to customers.

Rockwell's chip rollout has been delayed until this week, according to company officials in Newport Beach, Calif. Lucent Technologies Inc. and U.S. Robotics chips are not affected, according to sources.

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