Industry speeds delivery of standard-compliant modems

After more than a year-long delay caused by a standards dispute, modem vendors have begun to deliver new products that promise faster file downloads for federal employees who rely on dial-up connections or who travel frequently with a laptop computer.

The new modems transmit data at close to 56 kilobits/sec, which speeds up sending and receiving large files or downnloading images off the World Wide Web, a dramatic improvement over the current 33.6 kilobits/sec offerings.

Hayes Microcomputer Products Inc. announced its 56 kilobits/sec modem last week, joining such vendors as Ascend Communications Inc., Boca Research Inc., Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. and 3Com Corp./U.S. Robotics.

Vendors say the V.90 standard for 56 kilobits/sec modems represents the best option short of installing Integrated Services Digital Network lines, which are much more expensive and available only in limited areas.

"V.90 is nirvana because that is truly the last speed that is going to be able to be supported on an analog phone line," said Jeff Lubore, director of mid-Atlantic and federal sales for Ascend. "We've finally hit the wall. It's truly taking advantage of the entire bandwidth available in analog."

When the first 56 kilobits/sec modems were shipped last year, manufacturers did not work with common specifications, resulting in some vendors' products not being able to communicate with others and causing most users to stick with slower-but-standardized 33.6 kilobits/sec modems. Vendors generally fell in one of two camps: K56flex or x2.

The sometimes acrimonious debate ended in February when the International Telecommunication Union proposed the V.90 standard.

Users can now buy new modems from the vendor of their choice and not worry about what product is being used on the other end. Vendors from both camps have promised not to leave customers who bought pre-V.90 56 kilobits/sec modems with obsolete equipment.

Many vendors have released software— sometimes referred to as flash upgrades— that bring modems of either specification up to the V.90 standard. The upgrades are available on manufacturers' Web sites.

The V.90 standard will improve connectivity for more than 1,000 GSA employees who use telecommuting centers or who dial in from home offices or laptops because it resolves the compatibility issue, said Jack Jackson, team leader in the center for information infrastructure in the office of the chief information officer at GSA.

"I'd like to be able to tell my clients just make sure the modem you buy has specification associated with the standard," Jackson said. "Then we are in business."

Jerry Foster, task leader of computer and network support for the F-16 fighter program at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said the military and civilian employees he supports generally find 28.8 kilobits/sec modems to be sufficient, so upgrading is not a top priority at present. However, he said, the day is coming when the 500 users he supports will want to download larger files, including information from Web sites, and will need to upgrade to faster modems. "That's our plan. It's really just a funding issue," he said.

Market Constraints

Performance requirements are still an issue for many potential customers. Despite the 56 kilobits/sec moniker, the new modems often deliver slower performance. Constraints include federal regulations that limit speeds to about 53 kilobits/sec, a lack of support by many Internet service providers and poor phone lines.

The Marine Corps' Webmaster, Sgt. Will Donaldson, uses a 56 kilobits/sec modem when working remotely or at a location where there is no local-area network. His downloads, however, usually run at about 42 kilobits/sec, and sometimes he has to settle for less despite the capacity of his equipment.

Still, the move to 56K will make downloads significantly faster, said Ernie Raper, senior market analyst at VisionQuest 2000 Inc. Users who can increase the speed by as much as 20 kilobits/sec will be able to download about 40 percent faster, he said. "That's almost double, so that's significant. Even if they only get 6 [kilobits/sec] or 8 [kilobits/sec] more, that's very noticeable, and every bit helps in a true dial-up situation," Raper said.

But the added performance comes with a price. For example, Boca Research's estimated street price for an external 56 kilobits/sec fax/data modem is $129, compared to $79 for the 33.6 kilobits/sec version.

Diamond Multimedia is shipping its SupraExpress 56 kilobits/sec line of modems with prices ranging from $99.95 to $149.95.

Hayes is shipping Accura, a dual-mode modem that operates using either the K56flex technology or V.90, and it is priced at $169 for internal and $189 for external.

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