The evolving worldwide telecommunications landscape promises to deliver new and potentially very lucrative opportunities for Australian resellers occupying the modem market.
But as David Binning reports, complacency on the part of resellers in terms of helping their customers traverse the new landscape may see the playing field tilted dramatically in favour of those with the strongest commitment to serviceThe standard analog modem generally manages to do little to excite even the most avid technology enthusiast these days, with tech pundits preferring to mull over the disappearance of the little boxes rather than contemplate their resurgence.
For years, Australian resellers have been content just to stock their range of simple phone line modems, occasionally upgrading inventories to reflect marginal speed increases and basically pass the boxes over the counter. "It's a modem, you know what it's for" summed up the level of support that was required.
But things are a little different now in the Australian technology market for a myriad of reasons, all linked in some way or another to what is commonly referred to as the new global economy.
People are flocking to the Internet in droves and predictably just about every major retailer, financial service, media company and technology vendor is following.
And like in the good ol' days of US westward expansion, the railroad companies are also doing their darnedest to ensure that there's enough stuff in the ground, sea and space to make it all easier.
Fibre-optic cable is spreading like a giant centipede across Australia with several carriers all vying for business in every metropolitan city. Coaxial cable networks that, until recently, delivered only cable TV services, are now being used by Optus and Telstra to deliver everything from phone services, fax, Internet access, videoconferencing and video on demand. Satellite services have also grown, and with the antici-pated arrival of asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) services in Australia post-August this year, users will have more choices than they yet understand.
According to Denis Hayes, inventor of the modem and founder of the now defunct Hayes Modems company, the standard analog modem will become less relevant as new access technologies take off in the future.
"For years, Internet service providers (ISPs) had managed to make good money purely from dial-up services. But these companies will be forced to realign their businesses to embrace the new world, which will also see a heavy emphasis on wireless," Hayes commented.
Now something of a symbol of the woebegone modem industry, Hayes finally went out of business last year after filing for bankruptcy for the third time, marking the end of a company that had been at the forefront of the Internet's early development and proliferation.
Australia's own veteran of the modem industry, David Stewart, managing director and principal shareholder of local communications manufacturer Netcomm, points out the move towards "always on connection" new broadband services slowly being ushered in will have a dramatic impact on companies involved in providing access solutions.
"A whole new world is opening up and the resellers have the best understanding of how it will all fit together and prosper," he said.
Using the example of a typical computer sales assistant, Stewart says "he knows how to sell you the bits and pieces over the counter but he doesn't have a clue about how to sell you a solution.
"If you want to know how to match A to B to C and D then most resellers are in their infancy."
At the other end of the scale, there is a growing army of technical consultants working independently or as part of larger integrators in servicing the communications needs of the large companies. And as Stewart points out, the profits at the high end are leading to gross neglect of the smaller players.
"There is a dire shortage of resellers offering solutions for SMEs and home office-users when this is probably the fastest growing group.
"There will be huge demand for network devices combining hubs and routers, access control and filtering," he said.
Perry James-Brennan is the director of Australian modem manufacturer Auslinx. He claims that the analogue modem is still a huge cash cow for the company with 10,000 units driving out of its warehouses every month. But he also agrees with Stewart that the needs of consumers are becoming more sophisticated, especially with broadband's promise of 24-hour access.
"What we're seeing is the fragmentation of the market in terms of different modems for access technologies and also different needs," James Brennan said.
"More people are working from home and need to find ways of simplifying their technology and making sure that it all works," he said.
Importantly, he added, fast and reliable access to online services and content will become crucial as people seek to access more sophisticated services such as video on demand.
Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that Australians are flocking to the Internet in droves and are also using the Net more and more for activities such as shopping and bill payments.
Thanks in part to a 13 per cent increase in the number of homes with one or more computers between September 98 and 99, nearly 5.5 million adults, or 40 per cent of the population had accessed the Internet by May last year, compared with 3.6 million for the previous year.
Some 22 per cent of households or 1.5 million homes had Internet access in September last year compared with 14 per cent the year before.
Emphasising the need for greater reliability and security, the ABS estimated that shopping over the Internet has increased by nearly 60 per cent in the 12 months to May 1999 with books and magazines, and more importantly, computer equipment or software comprising the bulk of purchases.
The speed at which existing and new carriers are deploying fibre throughout metropolitan and regional Australia should also lead to a dramatic acceleration of Australians getting online.
Resellers able to combine information and services with sales on the Internet are likely to gain a significant advantage over those companies dawdling in the rollout of their e-commerce solutions.
Netcomm is currently in the process of launching a massive consumer communications portal for Australia and the rest of the world that will attempt to bridge these technical gaps.
The thing most dealers need to grasp is that there is no real difference between building an ISDN TA (terminal adapter), ADSL device or analog modem, commented Stewart.
"These are all simple devices; it all about providing access."
Stewart said that the site, to be launched next week, will likely cater to a broad range of technical capabilities with very basic information right up to quite technical information for semi-professionals. The company expects that it will be able to generate sales from the site with the opportunity also to attract advertising support.
Bertrand Bidaud, GartnerGroup director of telecommunications and electronic business, Asia-Pacific, agrees that the stand-alone analog modem is dead.
He did not, however, agree with Hayes' statement that dial-up access services would disappear as more sophisticated access technologies, such as cable and wireless, gain market acceptance.
"The idea that everyone will move at the same time or has the same needs is not convincing," he said.
The retail Internet started out as nothing but dial-up access, he continued, adding that the emergence of other technologies such as cable and ADSL would likely contribute to the increased sophistication of dial-up services, not the other way around.
Bidaud said that several new segments would emerge with broadband technologies and free access services are currently leading the way.
"Dial-up, paid or not, isn't going to disappear. The market becomes more sophisticated as it matures."
He said that the market is still in transition but that resellers should be aware that consumers now take it for granted that most PCs ship with modems and to take this into account when determining the specific direction of their business.
Ian McLean, Australian product marketing manager for NetGear, a wholly owned subsidiary of communications giant Nortel Networks, agreed saying, "The industry is not about straight modems anymore.
"Increasingly we are dealing with smaller companies trying to sort out a whole lot of different access devices all connecting them to different ISPs with different e-mail domains and so on," McLean said.
Adamant that his company was not neglecting the little guys, Mclean maintains that Netgear has seen this sector of the business grow nearly 200 per cent in the last year.
"We are trying to make this as easy as possible for people out there, he said, claiming that Netgear is the only company with 24 x 7 support for the Australian end user. Four weeks ago, the company established the headquarters for its Asian support centre in Sydney.
"The way we look at the market," Netcomm's Stewart says, 'is yes, we build modems, but we are working to develop products for access.' At one point they will cease to be simply modems and consumers will be searching for more than just that.
"The modem is boring but the reality is that consumers need them. Many corporates still buy modems, as do all the notebook users," he added.
Gartner's Bidaud foreshadowed the arrival of a multipurpose access device whereby consumers will be able to switch between dial-up, cable or DSL depending on what's available," although cable and DSL availability is not sufficient in most countries for heavy users that need to travel as notebook customers do".
Netgear is currently trialing cable modems in its US labs and expects to have products available in Australia within the next few months.
Stewart said that the company was looking to building a cable modem at the moment but will wait until the market is open to more commercial competition.
"Because of the lack of infrastructure provided by carriers, new and exiting modems are sparse.
"We're playing with cable modem at the moment but the retail market is not open at this stage," he said, adding that once Telstra switches to DOCSIS, the accepted cable modem standard, then people can switch between carriers, thus helping cable modems become a retail product.
"The future of the modem industry in Australia really rests with Telstra," said Gary Jeng, director of the Australian subsidiary of Taiwanese modem and motherboard manufacturer Protac.
He believes that the Australian modem market is unlikely to see any interesting developments before mid to late 2000, when ADSL is introduced to the local market. This is despite the fact that cable has seen relatively fast adoption in Australia.
"Cable still has a long way to go before it is widely affordable and accessible," Jeng said.
ADSL is a technology allowing broadband communications speed down existing copper phone lines. Telstra is currently trialling the technology with Primus Telecommunications, RSL Com, Optus and the communications division of United Energy, UeCom. If Telstra meets its August deadline to have its exchanges ready for deployment, services should be available in late August.
Until then, according to Auslinx's James-Brennan, "it's steady as she goes for the Australian modem industry".what's new from . . .
. . . Protac
The ME220 is the latest 56K analogue fax/modem from Taiwanese manufacturer Protac.
While the company has found that sales of modems packaged as part of its motherboards have delivered the best results lately, it is still persevering with stand-alone models, seeking to broaden the standard features of cheaper modems beyond mere data capabilities.
Based on the Cirrus Logic chip, the ME220 is a basic entry-level model aimed at the home or small office user with automatic transfer between the V.90 and X2 standards.
It offers a number of features previously absent from models of this price range, which is likely to be extremely appealing to the busy-but-budget-conscious consumer. For instance, the product ships with the company's Supervoice software that delivers an answering machine function as well as a facility for automatic answering. It also ships with full duplex speakerphone software.
Priced at only $119, the Protac ME220 is great value for users looking to get more than just basic Internet access cheaply.
. . . Netgear
The RM356 is a networking product designed to allow as many as four PC users to share Internet access and e-mail through the one ISP. It also offers a number of other benefits, such as file and print sharing, which is typically a hassle for busy workers in the home or small office.
It is essentially a 56K bps router with built in four-port hub and modem which, in addition to easy sharing of standard office peripherals, also offers multi-game player capabilities over a network.
The RM356 is very compact and can easily be sat beside a PC on a user's desk and uses the existing line to connect to a user's phone.
A key feature of the RM356 is its ability to seek a connection immediately after the user attempts to open their Internet browser, skipping the usual step of having to actually go through and instruct the PC to connect. This is one of the benefits of Netgear's FirstGear software which provides a handy connection interface for Windows.
Netgear offers full 24 x 7 support for all products. Network interface cards can be purchased to connect each PC to the modem.
Available now, the RM356 is priced at
Netgear: (02) 9927 8888
. . . Netcomm
Reflecting the company's focus on combined communications solutions, Netcomm has released a new 56K modem combined with hub aimed at the small business and home market.
The Banksia EasiHub 56 provides users with three extra USB ports allowing any number of USB compatible peripherals, like printers, as well as the Internet.
The EasiHub devices' unique curved housing has been engineered to allow easier cabling from the front, instead of via the rear like traditional 'box-like' hubs. The design allows a user to plug input connectors into the back and run output cables from the front.
The products are completely self-powered port expanders which means that power supply enables multiple power-hungry USB devices to work ogether, with a clean power source for each port.
The devices are available through Banksia and other large resellers. The Banksia EasiHub56 retails for $149.http://www.netcomm.com.au. . . 3ComThe new 3Com CMX cable modem is one of a number of products released by the company to capitalise on the growing popularity of cable. With little box, 3Com claims that users will be able to reach download speeds of up to 3M bps which certainly leaves the old 56K for dust. With so much excess bandwidth it also enables users to connect to the Web and leave their phone or fax line free.
The speed of cable also makes this product appealing for those who compulsively download from the Web or need to access complex graphics and applications from the Net.
In addition to 3MB downstream, the CMX
gives you 1M bps upstream meaning that you'll not have to wait more than an instant to connect to
The CMX complies with the industry cable standard being DOCSIS. Unfortunately, Telstra is not quite ready for DOCSIS, meaning that CMX users have the one choice of service - Optus@Home. Users do, however, have the choice of PC or MAC.
The CMX comes with 5-year warranty and is priced at $629 RRP.http://www.3Com.com.auThe benefits of IP multicast over DSLBy Radu CraioveanuThe combination of IP multicast over DSL lets network managers broadcast news, radio and television feeds, stock updates, and voice or video conferences with exceptional cost and bandwidth efficiency.
The architecture of the underlying protocol is the key to those efficiencies. Traditional systems would have to maintain multiple unicast streaming sessions - one for each user. This requires a lot of bandwidth and does not scale well. Imagine a building with dozens of tenants, all subscribing to the same videoconference via the same Internet service provider (ISP). Without IP multicast, a content server would have to send the same feed to each tenant. With a typical bandwidth requirement of 300K-bps for a television feed, multiplying this for each user dramatically illustrates the unicast bandwidth problem.
New broadband technologies, including cable and digital subscriber line, make multicast services possible. Both cable and DSL technologies have the bandwidth to support at least one live videostream. Most routers offer several protocols that enable IP multicast.
There are two components to the IP multicast support. One consists of the communication between the routers in the network, and the other is the last-leg connection between the access router and the client using the service. The result is a network tree, with the server residing at the top, routers forming branches among themselves and leaves in the direction of service users. As new users join, routers form new branches to connect the server and the client. As users go away, the routers prune, deleting those leaves.
In order to implement IP multicast fully, network hosts must be able to support a multicast protocol to enable them to connect to the local router or to the multicast server itself. This protocol, called Internet Gateway Multicast Protocol (IGMP), is a standard piece of the IP stack found on all PCs and most routers. It is mainly a registration protocol where PCs register to join a particular multicast group or service.
In addition to the registration and deregistration component, there is a "keep-alive" component. Routers can connect to each other all the way to the multicast server via interrouter protocols.
The multicast server may be either directly connected or routed to the clients, which dictates whether there is a need for inter-router multicast protocols. If the customer is connected via DSL, there usually will be a Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) and customer premises equipment (CPE) pair between the point of presence router and each user's PC or each user's access router. The points of interest in that chain are the connection between the POP router and the DSLAM, followed by the connection between the DSLAM and the DSL CPE.
The behavior of the link between the DSL CPE and the user will be physical-network-dependent. In most cases, it will be Ethernet, which has built in support for multicast. If Ethernet framing and Ethernet bridging are used to go through the DSL infrastructure all the way to the POP router, the POP router will be aware of all the IGMP join requests and will be able to service them by forwarding traffic with a multicast media access control address toward the DSLAM.
As Internet backbone pipes get fatter and last-mile connections keep pace with new broadband technologies, IP multicast presents tremendous, new opportunities. IP multicast over DSL enables IT managers to offer scalable, broadband-enabled technologies at a quality level never before obtained.