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Showdown Looms Over Computer Modem Standard International Union To Settle Battle Between Two Competing Camps

Zachary Coile San Francisco Examiner

Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? X2 or K56flex? The consumer world has been split in two again, this time over an unusual object of controversy: modems, the pint-sized gizmos that link a computer through a phone line to the Internet or other networks.

The two new technologies - X2 and K56flex - allow users to pull data from the Web at nearly twice the speed of modems commonly used today. Trouble is, the two types of modems are completely incompatible, and backers of X2 and K56flex each claim to own the superior technology. Customers looking for speedier Web access have been forced to choose sides.

Fortunately, the two factions appear close to a truce. Observers say settling the war that has raged for several months will benefit consumers.

When the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva meets next month, it is expected to issue a single standard for the new 56 kilobitper-second modems. The standard is likely to be approved by January, observers say. The agreement would mean the fast new modems would have to be able to talk to one another.

An industry standard would end the uncertainty for computer users, many of whom have not upgraded for fear the modem they choose might soon be outmoded.

“A lot of people have been saying, ‘I don’t want to play the upgrade game,”’ said Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, the bible of the Internet service providers. “They’re saying 28.8 kbps is good enough for now. When you get a standard together, then we’ll upgrade.”

Most users now have 28.8 kbps modems, though some have faster 33.6 kbps devices and others have stuck with their old 14.4 kbps modems. Kilobits per second refers to the baud rate, the speed at which a modem sends and receives data.

Speed has always been the central issue for modem makers. Frustrated by long waits for Web pages to materialize, computer users have been pushing manufacturers to build modems able to transmit more information, more quickly.

The 56 kbps modem was the industry’s answer. Introduced earlier this year, the device used advanced technology to bypass limitations in standard phone lines to transmit at speeds just shy of the more expensive ISDN phone lines.

In February, leading modem manufacturer U.S. Robotics unveiled its new X2 technology. Rockwell Semiconductor and Lucent Technologies, two chip-makers, followed suit in March with K56flex. Both aimed to establish their technology as the industry standard.

The two competing standards created confusion for consumers for another reason: Internet service providers also have had to pick which technology to use for their remote access concentrators, or ISP modems, which link the signal from a customer’s modem to the Internet. Consumers had to be sure their choice was supported by their local ISP or on-line service. Otherwise, their 56 kbps modem would run at a much slower speed.

The standard set by the ITU will likely be a compromise, combining elements of each of the technologies.

“The final standard may be more X2 than K56flex or vice versa, but it won’t be a purebred version,” said Abner Germanow, analyst with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. “That’s just the way the ITU works.”

Modem makers expect an immediate boost in sales when the standard is reached and consumers feel they can upgrade easily.

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