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FEATURE Flex your modem muscle

FEATURE Flex your modem muscle

The establishment of a standard in the IT industry means less conflict and more stability, or in short, easier business decisions for the channel. To see how V.90 and 56Kbps modems have changed things, ARN's Gerard Norsa sought three suitably experienced commentators to garner opinions on the opportunities, if any, that V.90 offers the Australian reselling channel.

Bigger hard drives, more RAM, accelerated processing, unprecedented Internet capability and faster modems are features that complement each other to extend the potential of a networked world. Until the declaration of V.90 as a 56Kbps standard, modems were dragging the chain on compatibility, interoperability and performance for optimum productivity.

The choice between the conflicting K56flex and x2 standards caused hesitation from many users and resellers to adopt 56Kbps modems. Now that the doubt about claimed performance figures and the wait for a single standard is over, and throughput approaches genuine 56Kbps, manufacturers have started to develop products that optimise the technology.

The collective sigh of relief from the world's modem manufacturers after the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) announced the new V.90 standard in February this year, has been followed by a rush to deliver products to the market and propagate user confidence.

The wait is over

Modems with a 56Kbps tag aren't all that new - vendors have been selling either Rockwell's K56flex and/or 3Com's competing x2 technologies for quite a while. However, all vendors would agree there was an extended period of fence sitting from consumers as the ITU settled on the appropriate standard.

To obtain maximum benefit from any 56Kbps modem, and now the V.90 compromise, both server and client need to be using the same standard. Compatibility is the key, and for most applications everyone has been watching and waiting for developments, not wanting to invest without knowing where the future will take connectivity. In a lot of cases, the infrastructure for 56Kbps access at the ISP end is only just starting to be implemented as formal approval of the new standard has instilled them with confidence to purchase the required upgrades.

With V.90-coded firmware now available from most manufacturers, who have almost unanimously committed to supporting the standard, demand is going to force the larger ISPs to upgrade sooner rather than later. The biggest ISPs, which represent about 80 per cent of the Internet service market, are already trialling V.90-based central sites.

Demand for the Internet

As the computer world answers the call of the Internet and rapidly advances its software and hardware technology to embrace it, modems have been the stagnant factor in the last 18 months or so. As we all know, that is a long time in the computer industry.

According to the commentators we spoke to, the rise from slumber by the modem industry, by way of V.90 acceptance, not only spells a technological milestone, but also represents a great opportunity for the reselling channel.

Progress in the industry over the last 18 months has largely centred around processing speed, integration and connectivity for improved productivity. In combination with widespread availability of faster modems and general ISP support of 56Kbps and now V.90, this focus offers resellers the chance to deliver their customers demonstrably exciting new Internet capability on a scale never seen before.

The biggest limiting factor to average consumer and business users spending more time on the Internet is its cumbersome nature when it comes to downloading anything more complex than a text-based document. Slow response, courtesy of restricted modem capability, has been a significant turn-off to many who have consequently ignored the potential of the World Wide Web.

While there are alternate methods for organisations with intensive Internet requirements to gain improved Internet access, technologies such as ISDN links and cable modems all come with a price premium. For the reselling channel, modems are still the ticket to most of the rising demand for connectivity and they will be for the foreseeable future, which in this industry is no further than January 1, 2000 at the very latest.

So where is the demand going to come from, and just how does 56kbps modem access benefit users?

An independent view

Graham Penn, general manager of research at the Australian office of global IT research organisation International Data Corporation (IDC) says demand for modems is an on-going proposition and the arrival of faster modems may be the stimulus for many users to upgrade old systems.

"Not everyone has a PC that is six months old," said Penn. "There are a lot of four to five-year-old PCs out there doing a task for owners who are becoming increasingly dependent upon them. They will be upgrading over the next six to 12 months and are going to get bigger hard drives, more RAM, Windows 98, faster processing, better monitors and faster modems.

All this will come at about the same cost incurred by their existing system(s). These days, everyone has to have a modem, so the arrival of this new V.90 technology is a good time to revisit customer databases with a view to alerting contacts to the realm of new Web access opportunities created by 56kbps modems.

"In the last three years modems have emerged from being a useful add-on to almost being an essential component of home PCs and a lot of small-to-medium business desktops. There is now a great incentive to upgrade," said Penn. "There is not a lot the average punter can do about internal modems, so a lot of people will not even think about a new modem until they upgrade their computer."

Penn is convinced there are channel opportunities based on the modem situation but warned there is a large variety of divergent uses for modems and that resellers need to caution customers about the need for ISP compatibility to obtain maximum benefit from the new 56kbps standard.

"There are three main types of modem users," he said. There is the home user who puts a modem in every PC, there is the notebook PC on the road where there is probably a modem as well, but in a networked business environment you may only have one line connecting to the outside world. In that case each one of them doesn't need a modem.

"You are also going to get a rise in the use of smart, hand-held devices with Internet access and they are going to change the way a lot of people work."

The rise in popularity of remote access PCs with some sort of connection into a wired or wireless world and the almost universal uptake of V.90 amongst the major ISPs will mean that using 56Kbps modems will provide the productivity benefits all organisations require.

"Resellers do need to make sure, however, that compatibility issues between client and server are addressed, and they need to educate themselves as they will be bombarded with hype about V.90," said Penn. "The vendors will have you believe that everyone will be wanting one by Christmas. I don't think that will be the case but they may be appearing under Christmas trees as a lot of the demand will be generated by teenage children hassling mum and dad so they can get better access to the Net."

A view from the bridge

Over at 3Com, which is of course one of the players in the whole debate over setting an industry standard, Rob Forsyth, senior marketing engineer for the Australia/New Zealand remote access product division, confirmed that V.90 would represent a very strong push in the market over the next 12 months.

"The dispute over 56Kflex and x2 standards has not really enhanced the V.90 scenario over the last 18 months or so, but all modem manufacturers are now moving in the same direction and trying to achieve what is best for the end user. It appears as though most ISPs are now taking up the challenge and there are already some advertising capability to deliver dual mode 56Kbps services," said Forsyth.

He confirmed the general belief that this universal attention to the one 56Kbps standard and client/server compatibility is creating market opportunities for the reselling channel.

"For people in the channel, there is definitely going to be a fair bit of demand for V.90. We are only in the infancy of V.90 but are already delivering a lot of client and server systems. As more people hear about it and understand what it delivers, people will be upgrading," he said.

"As the Internet becomes more and more a standard functionality of business and home PC usage, the technology will sell itself. The performance of modems will become a productivity issue and that is where the V.90 standard will represent real benefits to the end user."

It seems logical that as the take-up of the technology increases, the expectation of users to take advantage of extra bandwidth in conjunction with their more powerful PCs and more intricate software is going to increase. This means organisations without 56Kbps connectivity will soon start to receive e-mail attachments that will block up their systems for excessive amounts of time if they aren't compatible.

"If you are only dealing with text-based mail then you are probably not using nearly as much bandwidth as you could. These days, a lot of organisations have remote staff who are needing to push around large spreadsheet, presentation and other files. For them, it is going to be easy to sell the extra speed of a 56Kbps modem," said Forsyth.

Forsyth stated that V.90 is the most burning issue faced by the modem manufacturers today and that for the channel to get the best benefit out of its possibilities, sales staff need to arm themselves with appropriate levels of information.

Understanding how and why V.90 works and who will benefit the most from it will make it easier to recommend its use.

"End users are definitely starting to pick up on the importance and benefits of V.90 deployment and we are seeing ISPs respond to the demand. The technology also goes hand-in-hand with organisations and individuals needing and wanting increased functionality and performance from remotely used notebook PCs and hand-held devices," said Forsyth.

Having solved various manufacturing issues and completed vast management restructuring after the merging of Banksia, Dataplex and NetComm, Sirius Technologies can now get on with its claim to linking more Australians to the Internet than any other vendor.

Citing a new focus on V.90 modem production, Business Strategy Manager at Sirius Technologies Cam Wayland said the new 56Kbps standard simplifies the whole process of compatibility and interoperability - which is a good thing for consumers, ISPs and all levels of the channel.

"V.90 is an Internet-specific technology that is now a standard the whole industry can get behind. Most of the major ISPs have upgraded to deliver faster Internet access, and the stability in the new technology has been welcomed by modem vendors as a whole," said Wayland.

Faster access

Tested and proven code is now becoming available to ISPs for upgrade to V.90 at their central sites, and that will be widely deployed in the near future. As indicated by everyone ARN spoke to for this article, clients who take up this technology will have to make sure their ISPs are also V.90 capable for the full benefits of the technology.

In accordance with the theory that the foundation of V.90 as a modem standard is a good opportunity for the channel, Wayland argued there have been a lot of people sitting on the fence, waiting for the standard to be settled upon. He concluded that, at the very least, it gives resellers a perfect opportunity to reopen a line of communication with past customers.

"Resellers can revisit older clients they may have sold a modem to some time ago and look at an upgrade program for them. Once they have sold the modem there is an introduction to all sorts of other new hardware and software possibilities based around the benefits of connectivity," he said.

One might expect a vendor to promote that sort of line, but there is also a lot of truth in it. Current alternatives for extended bandwidth have their drawbacks, and optimising performance on existing telephone cable infrastructure is still the connectivity solution for most Australians.

"We are on the cusp of V.90 in that the client products are starting to become available, but before long it will be widely supported and deployed by ISPs as well. Then the real benefits will be apparent," said Wayland.

"This is a technology that is going to be around for a fair amount of time. It will be a minimum of 12Ð18 months before a replacement technology comes along."

He added that from the channel's point of view the new stability means it can learn to understand the V.90 technology and drive it to maximum penetration into home and business PC markets. It can also start building its productivity benefits into the structure of organisation-wide communication solutions.

"Remember that Windows 98 is coming and it is built around Web capability which will mean more people are going to be connecting to the Internet and looking for faster modems," he said in closing.

PRODUCTS

Most 56kbps modems sold recently will be flash-upgradable to V.90 when codes are available and/ or operate in dual modes where required. Some of the latest client products are starting to incorporate V.90 technology as the take-up at the ISP central site end accelerates. Here are some of the latest products availableAdvanced Portable TechnologiesFreeSpirit. Designed for wireless communication, the PC card FreeSpirit by Portable Add-Ons is available in speeds of 33.6Kbps or 56Kbps. It supports international data and fax standards and includes error correction facilities. An additional cable incorporates an active ISDN processor which will crank up the speed of the modem. It is available as a GSM only or as a combination GSM-modem card. The FreeSpirit has 2Mb of flash memory on board and 8Mb on the ISDN module. It is flash upgradable to the v.90 standard.

GSM phones supported include Nokia, Alcatel, Panasonic and Motorola. The modem comes with a range of communications tools and software. FreeSpirit (33.6Kbps) with the GSM option is $493 RRP; FreeSpirit (56Kbps) is $569 RRP.

Global Freedom. TDK's Global Freedom 5660 is a wireless modem with speeds up to 56Kbps on land lines. It supports Rockwell's K56flex technology and is flash upgradable to the v.90 standard. The mobile connectivity option lets users connect on a GSM digital phone or on any analog digital phone. The modem is compatible with the international PCS/DCS digital mobile networks, so users can connect via a mobile phone around the world. It uses TDK's Global Class technology, which enables users to connect legally and reliably to phone lines around the world. The 5660 uses Digital Line Protection to guard against damage caused by connection to a digital PBX line. The modem can be used as an answering machine with multiple mailboxes. Global freedom 5660 is $521 RRP.

Diamond

V.90 Pearl. Diamond Multimedia has made its Shotgun technology available as a free download to all its SupraExpress 56 customers.

Shotgun provides the means for the modem to bond with another single-line analog modem, providing Internet download speeds of up to 112Kbps.

The technology has support from a number of ISPs.

Shotgun was created to work with the SupraExpress 56 series and the dual-line SupraSonic II. The technology bonds two analog modems to work together over ordinary phone lines.

It also bonds the SupraExpress with a host of modems from other manufacturers.

It can "sense" when greater bandwidth is required for Internet connection and automatically adds the second phone line.

Conversely, when less bandwidth is required, the second line is released for other users. This function can also be controlled manually.

The download is available at www.diamondmm.com/products/ firmware/56k-australia.htmlDynalinkA dynamic link. Dynalink 56kbps modem offerings include the external VoiceDesk 56 Pro, model V1456VQE-R and the internal VoiceCard 56 Pro model V1456VQH-R.

They are 33.6kbps voice/fax/data speakerphone modems that incorporate K56flex technology for faster Internet download. The modems are flash memory upgradable to the future ITU-T 56kbps standard.

Features include V.80 and Rockwell Video Ready-compatible synchronous access mode support and H.324 host-based applications for videoconferencing. The internal modem is a Plug and Play 16-bit ISA card.

Dynalink 56kbps modem buyers will be able to install Connect Wizard, which allows the modem to "recognise" which standard is being used to connect to the server. It can then create a file for use in lieu of the firmware and, when appropriate, will upgrade the modem's firmware to the V.90 standard.

According to a Dynalink spokesperson, 33.6kbps is still the fastest available analog technology. 56kbps modems use a hybrid technology to achieve faster download speeds, with some important limitations. They connect to each other at 33.6kbps and offer no advantage for modem-to-modem connection. 56kbps communication is available only on downloads from suitably equipped Internet service providers.

"For this reason it is pointless to update your 56kbps modem's firmware to V.90 before your ISP adopts the standard," he said.

Dynalink VoiceDesk 56 Pro is priced at $199 RRP and VoiceCard 56 Pro is $175 RRP. Dynalink is represented in Australia by Askey Australia, a subsidiary of manufacturer Askey Computer Corporation.

Sirius Technology

As the number-one player in the Australian modem market, you'd expect Sirius Technologies to be quick to market with products for the hard-core surfer, Internet-connected organisations and those wanting to take advantage of attractive Internet telephony offers. It does this with a flash upgradable dual mode V.90 and K56flex chipset as well as by having a high-end professional communication solution.

The NetComm Roadster II 56 Ultra offers 56kbps download speeds (33.6Kbps for uploads), voice data and a fax modem with Simultaneous Voice and Data (SVD). It can also operate as a hands-free speakerphone with or without the headset that is included. It sends and receives faxes at 14.4kbps. It has an RRP of $299.

NetComm's high-performance, 16-bit technology model for business solutions is called SmartModem 56 with support for synchronous and asynchronous communications. There is also DES encryption for advanced security, strong built-in online help and easy upgrades with Flash ROM capability.

It is available for $549 RRP

Under the Banksia brand name is the Wave SP 56, which also offers voice, data and fax features with SVD, microphone and answer-phone functions. The winner of a DesignMark Award from Australian Design Awards, it also boasts the dual mode 56/33.6kbps performance, and 14.4kbps faxing for a fairly complete communications and entertainment package for home and office users. Wave also comes with Internet Explorer and ISP offers.

It has an RRP of $299.

Banksia also has a product which offers "affordable Internet access for everyone in your business". The WebRamp M3 is an integrated analog router and four-port Ethernet hub designed to increase productivity on the Internet. Compatible with existing external modems or new 56kbps models, it is capable of expanding to a growing Internet requirement, including telephony, as one, two or three external modems with regular phone lines can be added as demand for Internet access increases.

It's RRP is $795.

Multiwave

Local modem manufacturers should be aware of the next generation of host-based controller modem solutions which utilise a high level of integration in the PCI interface for greater access to host systems, while also implementing V.90/K56flex technology. A host-based controller modem utilises more powerful CPUs as they become available as well as access to the associated RAM and disk space advances.

The CommWave 56Kbps PCI Lucent V.90 modem from Multiwave Innovation, a Singapore-based PC multimedia product manufacturer specialising in software modem and DSP modems, is based on the Lucent Technologies DSP1646 chipset which offers a PCI interface that supports both slave and master operation.

It uses the Lucent 2802B high-speed modem transformer to meet emerging DAA requirements for use in 56kbps modem designs. The DSP hardware performs MIPS-intensive operations, such as V.90/ K56flex and V.34 and V.32 modulation with high levels of integration.

The PCI Lucent V.90 modem will be available next month.

Xircom

Versatility and mobile connectivity gain a boost from Xircom's new RealPort 10/100+Modem 56, which the vendor claims to be the industry's first 16-bit integrated PC card with built-in connector system. The RealPort PC Card is aimed at those users who want the versatility to connect to information from the office or remote locations anywhere in the world.

As there is only one PC card, there is no need for custom cables or pop out jacks - you just plug a standard RJ-45 Ethernet and RJ-11 telephone cord directly into the integrated PC card.

Supporting both K56flex and V.90 (via flash download) operation, the RealPort 10/100+Modem 56 combines the fastest 56Kbps modem technology available with AMPS cellular and GSIM connectivity (for use with a variety of popular mobile phone brands) as well as GlobalACCESS into a single cable-free PC card.

It also features integrated Ethernet, LAN, modem and telephone handset pass-through connectors for reliable cable-free connectivity; forward and backward driver compatibility with the Xircom CreditCard Ethernet 10/100+Modem 56 product; DigitalShield which protects the modem from high-current digital phone lines; and CountrySelect software which automatically configures dialling to local dialling conventions.

High-performance features include connectivity with notebooks to 10Mbps or 100Mbps Ethernet networks, support for modem speeds up to 56kbps and a BatterySave program that powers down the adapter when not in use for longer battery life.

RealPort 10/100+Modem 56 has a recommended retail price of $829. Xircom is distributed in Australia by CHA, Express Data and Tech Pacific.

CONTACTS

Advanced Portable

Tel (02) 9433 8300

Fax (02) 9439 4629

Askey Australia

Tel 1800 357 253

Fax 1800 063 962

3Com

Tel 1800 644 606

Fax 1800 673 313

CHA

Tel 1800 629 041

Fax 1800 676 076

Diamond Multimedia

Tel (02) 9460 2355

Fax (02) 9460 2360

Dynalink

Tel 1800 357 253

Fax 1800 063 962

Express Data

Tel (02) 9598 9100

Fax (02) 9317 3339

Sirius Technologies

Tel (02) 9424 2000

Fax (02) 9424 2010

Tech Pacific

Tel (02) 9381 6444

Fax (02) 9381 6290


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