The dust has nearly settled after the raging battle to establish a 56Kbps modem standard. Durelle Fry spoke with industry experts in both local and overseas markets to find out the differences in the products available and what lies ahead in modem technology - how the innovations will impact on the industry and when we can expect to see them implementedNiels Kofahl, CEO of Sydney-based distributor Tecksel, has watched the stoush over standards with a high degree of interest. Now that it's all over, he's looking to the next technological leap, and thinks it may be sooner than we thinkARN: It's been said there are too many modem products on the market today. Do you agree with that assessment?
Kofahl: As the popularity of communi-cation and the Internet has steadily increased and a number of chipset solutions become available to manufacturers, an increasing number of modem vendors have entered the market in recent years. As the market further matures, consumers will polarise to either very low cost at the retail level or PC bundling level, or towards the premium end of the market where brands are well known and value is high.
Core technologies stem from only a handful of vendors, leading to similarities of technical specifications. Differentiation at the bundled or value level therefore becomes increasingly important for vendors to increase their market share.
What do you think of the view that there is not much difference between competitors' products, and the buyer's decision is largely based on price and the extras that come with the product?
Modems have sorted themselves into two groups or markets, namely SOHO and corporate. You get what you pay for in the SOHO group - excellent Internet connectivity, ease of installation and use, and free time to get hooked with ISPs. Most modems have either Rockwell or 3Com data engines and therefore perform much the same, depending on how much care the vendor has taken during manufacture or whether they have lowered the cost of production by using cheaper components. Software does vary and there are some excellent packages produced - Sirius NetComm features WinFax Pro V8.0 in a lot of its models.
The corporate group is designed for 24-hour operation and have features that you do not find in the SOHO range, such as call back security, data encryption, remote configuration, password security, leased line and so on. Only first-class components and expensive line interfaces are used to bolster performance under more difficult conditions and to improve reliability to the utmost as the corporate customer cannot tolerate any sort of shortcomings or failures. Sirius Group NetComm Smartmodems and Banksia Pro models provide excellent value there, as do the Hayes "Optima" and 3Comm/US Robotics "Courier".
What else is new on the market?
USB modems are just about to be released by Sirius (NetComm/Banksia). They will not require a separate power supply for the external modems - drawing the power requirements from the computer instead - which will make installation a breeze for the consumer. Other vendors won't be very far behind.
With network connectivity, mobility and Internet access now a must for SMEs, corporate and government, PCMCIA ComboCards are becoming more commonplace. A ComboCard is a PCMCIA card that has both modem and network connectivity. Demand for these sorts of products is indicative of the host of products that are now available. Sirius is about to release a 56Kbps, GSM Global Card.
Netcomm and Banksia are major vendors of these products. Each of them manufactures a 56Kbps 10Base-T card. As telecommuting becomes more popular and notebook prices fall, some employees will replace their desktop with a notebook. These sorts of users will need a modem and a network card. An all-in-one solution is an attractive proposition.
What are your feelings on the potential market for terminal adapters?
They are a good corporate solution for some communications problems offering guaranteed performance at 64 and 128KB throughput, but may have left their run too late as dial-up modems have almost caught up and are far more cost-effective for the SOHO and SME markets. Unfortunately Telstra, through its tariff policy, successfully strangled this technology and prevented it from reaching maturity.
What about cable modems?
Believe it or not, they are still lurking. Trials have been conducted in metropolitan areas. I see several problems with the telcos and the technology. On the plus side they are lightning fast, but on the downside the telco also knows that and charges by the "byte". After giving you some free "bytes" it cashes in on the speed cable can provide, and every Web page browsed after the free limit has quickly been reached is extra revenue for the telco. There are also some basic security concerns for the SMEs and corporates on the network that have been well documented. So I don't see many opportunities for the reseller in the short term.
I believe some products have simplified the ever-popular fax out?
The same WinFax Pro that comes free with NetComm modems allows you to connect two modems to the one computer and halve the time taken for your fax out. Zeta fax, marketed by Sirius, does the same on networks and works well over NT.
What is the state of office connectivity?
It is no longer the domain of the enterprise. With the release of comm servers by both Sirius (Banksia) and Hayes Century 2000, there are good opportunities for resellers and smaller network integrators to cash in on the burgeoning remote connectivity market. With the newer models, the complexities of installation and commissioning have been greatly reduced. It is now quite practical for the SME to have a comm server on the network and it usually pays for itself in a very short time in increased productivity.
With the ever-increasing use of notebook computers and card modems, the future for comm servers looks assured and remote connectivity is ready to take off.
What does the future hold?
Vendors are working on modem bonding - using two 56Kbps modems and two dial-up lines to boost download performance. A number of technologies are emerging to satisfy the ever-increasing desire for faster browsing and download speeds. Windows 98 has introduced a new feature: Multilink Channel Aggregation. Multiple modems connected to the PC can be combined by Windows 98 to provide, effectively, a high- speed connection to the Internet. Two phone lines are required, and support from the ISP on the server side is required, encouraging ISPs to use Windows NT.
The same technology can be used for ISDN as well as 56Kbps modems, ensuring serious performance gains. Bonding may soon be performed within the modem itself. These modems will be equipped with two PSTN sockets and will be configured with special firmware to achieve the increase in speed.
Vendors are also working on Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) technology, which promises the world. It has three information channels, all on the existing copper telephone line. One high-speed 6Mbps video download channel, one medium-speed (640Kbps) in both directions (full duplex) say for data, and one for your ordinary voice calls all going on simultaneously. The principle is very simple, but technologically a lot of problems still have to be solved and we will not see ADSL in the short term.
CDSL (consumer digital subscriber line) looks more promising in the medium term if the vendors and major players can agree on a standard. CDSL is a compromise of ADSL, discarding the expensive technology of implementing three channels, and making do with one channel, so you can have either voice or data as today, but data at 1Mbps.
CDSL is also easier to implement at the exchange, so we may see something along those lines first.
Cam Wayland, business strategy manager of Sirius Technologies, is enthusiastic about the latest developments in modem and communications technology, but urges caution before rushing in to take advantage of the newest gadgetsARN: What do you think about Win 98's modem bonding?
Wayland: Win 98 bonding certainly works as a multilink PPP technology. However, for the technology to work, it has to be supported at the host or ISP end. We are not aware of any ISPs that are currently supporting this technology for dial-up analog connections. Some support this protocol to bond two ISDN 64Kbps lines to give 128Kbps connection.
For analog to work, you will also require two modems, two phone lines and two ISP accounts. Therefore, the cost might be prohibitive at this point for the home user.
What is the position with Webramp-type products?
They are taking off. They are ideal for SMEs, and very cost-effective for this market both from the point of view of technology (56Kbps modems, analog lines and webramp), as well as setup and ongoing support costs. The user can do the whole lot and doesn't need to be a networking expert to get on the Net and share resources across the LAN.
What are the benefits of USB modems?
Again this is great technology but it needs the installed base of Win 98 to get a bit higher before you'll see significant volumes of product being sold.
Most PC and notebook vendors already have USB ports on current equipment. The big advantages of USB are that there is no power pack required, it eliminates the serial port bottleneck with 56Kbps modems and data compression, and adding the modem is easier as there is less configuration with IRQs etc.
Is VPN via the Internet becoming a reality?
Yes, slowly, due to high Internet costs which narrow the cost advantage. It will increase as the technology becomes less expensive and better understood. Sirius has VPN products on the market under the Dataplex brand.
Have dial-up modems almost caught up with ISDN terminal adapters?
Yes, the gap has closed, but ISDN is a full duplex medium and therefore for remote access, videoconferencing and Web hosting it is still more suitable. It is a business technology, while 56Kbps is a very good Internet access technology for consumers and SME.
Gerald Makos is the director of marketing for Xircom Asia-Pacific, an important vendor of modem and communications products and a supporter of the 56Kflex technology standard. He believes that, now that the industry has settled on 56Kbps, it will stick with that for a while and wait for future standardsARN: What is the future of 56Kbps modem technology?
Makos: 56Kbps modem technology will be around for some time to come. The standards will first be ratified in September and most major ISPs and large corporations are scheduled to begin rolling it out around that time.
Although there is speculation as to whether we will see faster speeds in standard modem communications, it is generally believed that other than minor incremental improvements on the upload site, 56Kbps will most likely be the fastest modem standard speed we can expect to see for quite some time.
Xircom will be rolling out our 56Kbps (V.90) upgrades in line with industry expectations. The majority of our customers who use PC Card modems mostly use them for either Internet or, more importantly, RAS (remote access) connections. Most RAS equipment providers and ISPs have already standardised on the 56Kflex technology, which we have supported from the beginning.
What will be the next wave of technology?
There are various potentials out there for the next major means of wired WAN communications. Today, ISDN is fairly standard in many parts of the world and is often the preferred standard of communications when available.
Xircom already provides ISDN PC Card products in some world markets and later this year we will be rolling out ISDN connectivity as a simple add-on capability for some of our RealPort line of products. It is very likely though, that DSL (digital subscriber line) could become the next major step in remote communications, mostly because the infrastructure is already in place to support this technology. However, more standards will need to be adopted before you will see a large proliferation of DSL.
Of course, on the wireless side, GSM is pretty much the de facto standard for wireless WAN communications (in most countries) where you will be seeing increased performances rolling out shortly. In the long run, CDMA will most likely be the technology to supplant GSM as the main wireless communications method. Xircom is always looking at new technologies. We're usually "first to market" with PC Card versions of new technologies. However, it is always our goal to be in line with standards to make sure we deliver the right products to market at the right time.
What is the future of modems on notebooks?
There seems to be a trend these days to include modems on board with notebooks. This is something that has been happening over the years to varying degrees and it seems to come in waves. However, as most notebook manufacturers usually come to find, this is not where they want to be heading with notebooks, for various reasons.
First, modem homologation is not usually the expertise of the notebook manufacturers and, most importantly, this generally tends to hold up the launch of their products in various countries as they wait for the processes to be completed.
From the end-user standpoint, there are several issues to be addressed. First, if something should go wrong with the modem, it requires the entire notebook to be returned for repairs - not something your average user can or wants to face. You also have the issue of modem technology changing fairly rapidly, leaving the user with a notebook with outdated equipment that can't be easily upgraded. Xircom provides the latest modem technology offering additional features and support (GlobalACCESS, GSM capabilities, CountrySelect) necessary for the mobile traveller. This ensures a mobile user having the best price/performance ratio available.
What will be the standard form factor for connecting a notebook to a network?
Today, a PC Card is clearly the standard form factor connecting a notebook to a network (LAN or WAN). This will continue to be the standard for notebooks moving forward with the exception of CardBus (32-bit bus) becoming the standard for PC Cards. However, as PDAs (personal digital assistants) continue to improve, more and more users will adopt this as their main source of data communications. The PDA won't replace the notebook but will complement it as the easiest, quickest means for WAN communications.
This will require a newer means of connecting these PDAs to the existing network structures and compact flash is becoming the clear front runner as the new standard form factor for accomplishing this.
Xircom is very much involved with the committee working to define the standard for compact flash. We, as part of the committee, are currently at work to define the necessary standards for allowing compact flash to accommodate I/O communications and you should begin seeing products supporting this in the first half of 1999. Today, compact flash is where PC Card technology was at its very early stages but the work already done on PC Card should help to fuel fast development in the compact flash arena.
Modem product range
WebRamp M3. WebRamp M3 is an integrated analog router and four-port Ethernet hub designed to increase productivity on the Internet. With this product, users can simultaneously share one, two, or three external modems with regular phone lines; start with one modem and add modems as more performance is needed; use existing 14.4, 28.8, 33.6 external modems or the 56K models; save on phone and Internet charges; and build networks with the free built-in hub.
The RRP of the Banksia WebRamp M3 is $795.
Banksia has also announced the availability of free V.90 upgrades for the Wave SP 56 modem.
This modem is a fully-featured data/fax/voice modem which delivers Internet downloads at up to 56Kbps and incorporates a speakerphone, answer phone, and SVD.
The modem can now be flash upgraded to the V.90 standard with software available at Banksia's Web site.
The free upgrade can be downloaded from www.banksia. com.au/servsupp/main/service.htm and updates all Wave SP 56s sold since August 1997.
The RRP of the Wave SP 56 is $279.
ACCURA V.90 Modems.
There are two new products in Hayes' range which begin shipping this month. The specifications are the same as for the current range of Accura 56Kbps modems and the only difference is that they will support the V.90 standard.
They will ship as V.90 modems.
The RRP of the Accura V.90 Data/Fax Modem (external) will be $249 and the Accura V.90 Speakerphone Modem (external) will be $299.
NetComm Roadster II 56 USB. Expected to start shipping early this month, Sirius believes this NetComm product may be "the world's first Rockwell-based, and Australia's first, USB modem".
NetComm's Roadster II 56 USB has a 56Kbps V.90 engine and boasts "higher speeds than ever before" for downloading graphics, software and multimedia.
The modem is a true plug and play product, able to be plugged straight from the desktop to the notebook's USB or to another Win 95 OSR 2.1 or Win 98-based PC without the need to power down or reboot.
The Roadster II 56 USB is based on Intel USB technology, eliminating the need for an external power pack and an RS 232 serial port connection. The modem transmits and receives data and power by a single connection to a USB port, reducing cable clutter on the desktop.
Data is channelled through the PC's USB port rather than the serial port, allowing it to reach the processor more quickly and efficiently. A PC receiving data from this modem uses less resources because USB does away with the data buffering requirement that RS 232 modems face as data is downloaded from the Web. This allows the PC to concentrate on processing Internet-rich data.
Because the product is the latest 56Kbps V.90-based standard, no V.90 upgrade is required.
Other features include inbuilt SVD (simultaneous voice and data) technology, allowing the user to talk and send data at the same time over the same phone line. The product is flash ROM upgradeable allowing the modem's firmware to be easily upgraded via the Web as new standards are ratified. The ergonomic design allows for hands-free speakerphone operation, and a separate headset with microphone is included for private conversation.
The product comes with WinFax Pro 8.0 voice/fax/data software, allowing the user to send and receive faxes, and set up one or multiple voicemail boxes. The Roadster II 56 USB has an RRP of $329 and comes with a three-year warranty.
NetComm Roadster II 56 Ultra. This voice, data and fax modem has a dual-mode chip set and supports both V.90 and K56flex technology. It delivers a high-speed 56Kbps download, offers simultaneous voice and data and includes a headset. The modem operates as a hands-free speakerphone, with or without the headset. Maximum throughput is 230Kbps and faxes can be sent and received at 14.4Kbps. Additional features are built-in error correction and WinFax Pro 8.0 communications software. The RRP of the NetComm Roadster II 56 Ultra is $299.
NetComm SmartModem 56. An updated and revised model of this modem is being released. Features include data throughput of up to 460.8Kbps using 8:1 data compression.
Technology is 16-bit and the modem supports both synchronous and asynchronous communications. The modem is Defence Department approved and security includes 64-bit DES encryption. Additional features are advanced caller ID with diagnostics, built-in online help, flash ROM capability for easy upgrades, and capability for both standard telephone and leased lines.
The RRP of the updated/revised NetComm SmartModem 56 is $549.
Xircom RealPort Ethernet 10/100 + Modem 56. Released in Australia in July, this product has been described by Xircom as an "industry-first".
The RealPort Ethernet 10/100 + Modem 56 is an Integrated PC Card with built-in connectors. Advantages of an integrated card, according to Xircom, are "robustness, reliability and ease of use for notebook users".
Support is provided for "most" notebook PCs by sliding the card completely into the PCMCIA slot, and plugging standard RJ-45 Ethernet and RJ-11 telephone cords directly into the Integrated PC Card's built-in connectors. When finished, users unplug the standard cords and close the PC Card slot door.
The RealPort Ethernet 10/100 + Modem incorporates 10/100Mbps Ethernet, 56K modem, telephone handset pass-through, and mobile phone connections in a single device. LAN and modem LEDs provide status information and the telephone handset pass-through allows users to receive incoming telephone calls on their handset without disconnecting the modem cable. Digital Shield line protection safeguards the modem from high-current digital phone lines.
The product features GlobalACCESS including CountrySelect software and "extensive" country approvals for worldwide connections. Other software included is Xircom's BatterySave advanced power management, which powers down the adapter into low-power sleep mode when not connected to a network.
The Integrated PC Card provides 4MB of Flash ROM which can be used to upgrade to 56K ITU standard (V.90) at no charge, and supports both K56flex and V.90 operation (via free flash upgrade) with technology provided by Lucent Technologies.
The ESP of the Integrated PC Card is $729. The products are available in single unit, and five, 20 or 100 unit multi-packs.
Zoom 56K Dualmode. Due for release this month, the new product will replace the 56Kx (56Kflex) modem. New features include support for the V.90 standard and 56Kflex.
The fax modems can receive data from compatible sites at speeds up to 56Kbps, and at higher speeds with compression. The dual mode models auto- matically connect in ITU V.90 mode, K56flex modes, 33.6Kbps, or any other ITU International or Bell standard speed.
Features include reprogrammable Signal Processors (DSPs) and flash memory for downloading updates for all modem code, including DSP and Controller code. All modems include Plug and Play.
All current 56Kx models are fully flash upgradeable to the V.90 standard at no charge.
The product provides voice mail when used with a sound card and features Class 1 and Class 2 14.4Kbps send/receive fax for "printer quality" faxing to any fax modem or fax machine. Faxes can also be broadcast to multiple recipients, scheduled for transmission, or forwarded to another number.
The Dual mode modems are videophone-ready. V.80 capability supports H.324-compliant software for dial-up videotelephony. The Zoom 56Kv modem also has built-in Zoom/Video live-motion colour video capture hardware and a Zoom/Video Cam jack.
Features of all Dualmode models include Telstra Duet support to automatically route voice, fax and data calls, and ZoomGuard lightning protection.
The RRP of the 56Kx External Dualmode Voice/Fax/Data Modem is $249 and the 59K Internal Dualmode Voice/Fax/Data/Video Modem is $219.
Schools ramping up
WebRamp is being installed in several schools in Wagga Wagga, NSW by John Smith, manager of Computer Systems for Telephone Techniques. The schools are able to share Internet access among multiple PCs, "greatly enhancing the educational value of the World Wide Web". Smith says that: "over the last year schools have received numerous computers from the department, raising the twin challenges of establishing networks and providing Internet access."
He added that "the WebRamp meets all the requirements of cost, functionality, and convenience. It allows multiple users to access the Net using existing analog phone lines."
"In addition, more mod-ems can simply be added as the number of users increase, and it sits on the network without too many requirements.
Once configured, it looks after itself."
The opportunities for resellers offered by Web-Ramp apply not only to schools, but to small businesses where the cost of Internet access is an issue.contactsHayesTel (02) 9959 5544Hitek (distributor of Zoom)Tel (07) 3252 9998Sirius (distributor of NetComm and Banksia)Tel (02) 9424 2000Tecksel Tel (02) 9648 5822XircomTel (02) 9911 7790