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Is a faster analog modem in your future? Maybe not

U.S. FCC regulations could tie the hands of 56 Kbps chipset vendors. Battle lines are being drawn as drama plays out in Washington

February  1997
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Boston (01/24/97) -- Makers of high-speed analog modems played down the importance of a U.S. Federal Communications Commission rule that could mean slower connection speeds for users of their much-ballyhooed products.

The rule limits the amount of power that can be used to send a data transmission over a telephone line, and means that modems expected to transmit data at up to 56 kilobits per second (56 Kbps), twice as fast as analog modems currently on the market, will not perform as well as promised.

The 56Kbps technology was pioneered by Lucent Technologies Inc., Rockwell Semiconductor Systems Inc., and U.S. Robotics Corp., all of which expect modems based on their technologies to be released before the end of the month.

When it became apparent their technology required an illegal increase in modem signal strength, the companies petitioned the FCC in January to waive the rule, claiming it is based on out-of-date technologies. They are scheduled to meet with the commission this month (February) to discuss the matter.

"You can still get 56K even within the federal limits, but you'd get it more of the time without the rule," said Mike Jacobs, spokesman for Lucent's modem group. "It doesn't put a nail in the coffin of 56K, it just means you won't get that speed so often."

"No one thinks they won't accept the petition anyway," said Rockwell spokeswoman Eileen Algaze.

All three companies met this week with an ad hoc industry committee formed by the U.S. Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and the Electronics Industry Association (EIA), to try and hammer out a de facto standard for 56 Kbps modems. The companies presented the committee with results of the first tests conducted over real telephone lines that show what speeds users realistically can expect to achieve.

Lucent declined today to make public full details of those results. It said it can achieve 40 Kbps upstream, but would not release results for the downstream path -- from the central site to the user -- which is the one that promises 56 Kbps.

U.S. Robotics and Rockwell both said that within FCC rules, their technologies max out at 53 Kbps downstream.

"We are working with the FCC to get a waiver for the ruling," said Robyn Porter, spokeswoman for USR's remote access division. The company noted that the FCC rule does not apply outside the U.S., so when its products are shipped abroad, this month, their performance will not be impaired.

The FCC did not return calls seeking comment. Its rule was put in place when lines were almost exclusively analog, and is designed to prevent cross talk between cabled wire pairs in analog carrier systems.

The battle for a de facto standard has been another issue dogging companies' efforts to get wide support for 56 Kbps. In order for the modems to work well, end users and service providers must have compatible equipment. Lucent and Rockwell declared in September their modem chip sets will interoperate, but they are still incompatible with products made by U.S. Robotics, one of the largest modem makers in the U.S.

--James Niccolai, IDG News Service

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