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Vendors promise ISDN-type speeds at lower prices

By Richard Adhikari. Issue date: Oct. 21, 1996

Just as ISDN is establishing itself in corporate America, along comes a data transmission technology that threatens to take over: modems that support transmission from 33.6 Kbps to 57.6 Kbps.

The technology is so new it doesn't have a name yet, nor has anyone seen it work in the real world. But the biggest vendors in the modem industry--U.S. Robotics, Rockwell Semiconductor, Motorola, and Lucent--have announced plans to offer products using it.

Some users are eager to try the new technology, which U.S. Robotics calls x2. "It looks like we can get ISDN-type speeds from our users who don't have ISDN at their residences, and it'll be cheaper than ISDN," says Duane Rochelle, an IT engineer at the Entergy Services division of Entergy Corp., an electric utility in New Orleans.

Analysts say the technology may have appeal. "All those people who'd started to think about ISDN very seriously may think this is easier to implement," says Kitty Weldon, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a consulting firm in Boston. "That's frustrating, because ISDN is finally getting some mindshare."

To get the promised throughput, users need x2-compatible modems at both ends of the connection, and only one analog-to-digital conversion in the transmission path. The server modem must be connected to a digital circuit--a trunk-side T1 or ISDN line. The server modem can send data at higher than usual speeds because it doesn't need to convert from digital to analog before sending the signal over public phone lines.

The technology, if it works, will primarily benefit big companies. "The 56-Kbps technologies will be very well received in large Internet service provider installations and large corporate environments, which terminate modem calls on a T1 or an ISDN PRI [primary rate interface]," says Kieran Taylor, senior broadband consultant at TeleChoice Inc., a consulting firm in Verona, N.J. Entergy, for example,has laid the foundations: "We have an ISDN PRI and will probably have two or three within the next few months," Rochelle says.

One roadblock: "There's going to be a standards war," says Lisa Pelgrim, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., a market research firm in San Jose, Calif. As they push for standards, all vendors are going forward with proprietary technology. Users will need the same vendor's technology on their computer and at their ISP or corporate office.

Vendors plan to unveil 56-Kbps products over the next eight months or so, beginning with U.S. Robotics. The first customers are likely to be ISPs; U.S. Robotics says it has 30 of them signed up to use its technology.

With additional reporting by Mary E. Thyfault