Modem down

Modem down

Theories abound regarding the state of the modulator demodulator (otherwise known as modem) market in Australia. While bundled PC packages and the growth of PCMCIA cards suggest floundering fortunes for USB modems, the market is predicted to pick up with the proliferation of downloads available via the Internet.

The proliferation of Internet usage is seeing large quantities of music being fired down the line, and as home users obtain more sophisticated equipment, this is likely to become a far more common occurrence. Downloads are accessed via MP3 technology (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3), which compresses high-quality sound files so they can be downloaded quickly onto a PC hard drive.

All up, the Web definitely poses a threat to music publishers who want to track where their songs are being played and sold. There's also the question of Real Audio and new formats such as MP3 offering an alternative to conventional CD retail paths. Meanwhile, online gaming and the development of new technologies such as real-time video has further stressed the significance of the modem as a vital tool for online communications.

According to modem vendor Kingmax's account manager, Alex Se, there are two key factors affecting modem consumption at present on the Australian market, including the predominance of PCMCIA over USB and the fact that many modems, whether internal or external, now come bundled with many of today's PCs in the low-end market. `Consumption growth has been sluggish due to bundling and the rise in use of PCMCIA technology. For these reasons, the next financial quarter will be dead in terms of modem sales.'

Sirius technologies was born a few years ago after a merger between Banksia and NetComm. Due to `greater brand equity', the company has been known simply as NetComm since the start of December. Paul Zrna, the company's R&D man-ager, is keen to challenge any ideas about a sluggish modem marketplace, though is hesitant to endorse the notion that today's standard dial-up modems will be consumed more readily through the increase in multimedia.

`The greater volume of multimedia content on the Web will not necessarily affect the dial-up modem range. It is more inclined to affect the realm of ADSL, Cable and ISDN modems, which are the key technologies driving multimedia. Overall, multimedia's evolution and downloads are pushing up the consumption of modems, particularly those mentioned, so much so that Sirius is now investigating the release of cable modem technology,' Zrna said.

`ADSL, cable and ISDN technologies are those that will drive multimedia. In the future, through the evolution of online activities such as MP3 and games, there will be an even bigger push to get people online. As modems get faster, this will drive video- conferencing and video-on-demand,' he added.

ISDN, an acronym for Integrated Services Digital Network, delivers digital communication over standard telephone lines at a speed of 128Kbps, substantially faster than analog connections, and has long been touted as the next generation of telecommunications.

ISDN has been part of the Australian telecommunications landscape for the past eight years, though its potential has not been fully realised on a local level due to the limitations of hardware and customer equipment.

ISDN lines are not physically different from the standard phone lines companies use. In fact, long-distance lines are typically digital, so ISDN simply completes the digital circuit from your phone company's central office to your home. To hook a wave while surfing the Web, you need a fast connection. Downloading multi-megabyte videoclips should take seconds, not minutes. But even today's fastest V.34 modems, running at 28.8Kbps, surf the Net at a snail's pace.

Fortunately, ISDN terminal adapters (network termination devices needed to supply AC power to the ISDN line and convert the two-wire ISDN line into a four-wire connection) are ready to pick up where your old analog modem left off. Using digital ISDN phone lines, these communications wizards can connect at more than four times the speed of V.34 modems. ISDN lines afford clean digital connections as they are removed from the slowdowns that occur as analog modems re-send data to make up for the bits lost when they encounter noise on the line.

Prices for ISDN adapters have also fallen. A little more than a year ago, you couldn't find an ISDN TA for under $1000, and, in many cases, you still had to buy NT 1 hardware. But now you can buy an all-in-one ISDN TA that includes its own built-in NT1 for around $300.

Typical ISDN lines provide the user with two 64Kbps bearer channels and a data (D) channel. The D channel is generally used to transmit call set-up and signalling information, while the two B channels carry the data or voice. When you combine the B channels, you turn them into one 128Kbps pipe (for 112Kbps or 56Kbps lines). But you can only bond the channels if both your TA and the router you dial into support the same protocol.

The promise of 56Kbps throughput over standard analog lines has caused some network managers to reconsider their commitments to ISDN, even though the upcoming generation of high-speed modems is still a little hazy.

The advent of 56Kbps modem technology, as the implied ultimate in terms of dial-up modems presents a number of anomalies. As they are asymmetrical, 56Kbps can be achieved only downstream from the remote user, while the upstream limit is 33.6Kbps. The quality of local loops is also dubious. The most optimistic estimates provided by vendors predict that only 50 per cent of phone lines can transmit 56Kbps of data, while more pessimistic forecasts place the figure as low as 10 per cent.

The proliferation of the cable modem holds big promise for a range of applications, from plain old Web access through to network games, private data networks, videoconferencing, telemedicine and distance education. Cable modem technology, while far more expensive than other options, promises improved data transfer and faster access to Internet telephony, video and CDROM information services.

Ultimately, online services carried by the cable infrastructure show signs of being much more likely to arouse consumer and business interest. Aurora Communications' Glen Downe is keen to second such a notion: `Despite the billions spent on cable networks in Australia and around the world, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to high-speed Internet access. `There are millions of homes that could gain access to the Web by using cable direct to their PCs without having to invest in upgraded PCs or set-top boxes. This market has the potential to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars,' he added.

Contrary to Downe's optimism, Ramin Marbani of www.consult believes: `Cable modems are a non-event and will remain so in Australia until pricing changes and rivalry between providers are sorted out. Marbani says cost and complexity are the two key reasons for Australians failing to accept the technology more readily. `Thirty five cents a megabyte is the weirdest pricing I have ever heard of. It ends up being very expensive for users. If everyone had pay TV connected to their house and this was going to be sold as an add-on service then sure, but what is happening is that 30 per cent of people who have pay TV connected end up having it disconnected, so for the cable modem market this really is an uphill battle.

Cable modems can provide data transfer rates of 30 million bits a second, while the figure for today's dial-up modems is around 56,000. Analysts call for caution when it comes to assessing the hype surrounding modem speeds and broadband technology in general. In practice, higher modems speeds and improved capabilities may bring little improvement unless they go hand in hand with upgrades to user's computers and associated equipment to the structure of the servers providing the cable content and the ability of a system to avoid congestion. Users are also limited by the performance of their network cards.

The faster is better debate concerning the cable modem raises additional issues. What will happen when everyone in a neighborhood connects to the local cable provider at or near the theoretical 30Mbps transfer rate? Does the cable company have a high-speed, high-capacity line from its office to the Internet backbone through which all data must ultimately flow? Like a freeway with too many cars, it may become clogged, resulting in slow, frustrating data response, even if the user has paid for something faster.

Even with faster access to the Internet, there are other factors that prevent lightning fast transfers. The presence of older servers on the Internet will continue to cause frustration when they fail to upload stored data at the speed that users expect.

The last modem you'll need

The modem isn't dead, but it's dragging, thanks to the sub-56Kbps limit of the V.90 standard. That's just too slow, especially where digital subscriber line and cable modems are available.

With no prospect for higher-speed analog modems on the horizon, vendors are doing what they can to extend the modem's appeal and lifespan. Multi-Tech Systems' answer is to bundle every conceivable phone-line device into a single box and price the box very reasonably. Multi-Tech's MessageSaver includes a V.90 modem with 14.4Kbps fax capabilities, an answering machine and a speakerphone, all in a box smaller and lighter than a videocassette.

Because MessageSaver is an external device, it's powered up even when your PC isn't, so it can take answering machine messages (up to 30 minutes worth) and accept faxes (as many as 30 pages) even when the PC is off.

The answering machine lets you choose between regular or answer-only modes; in the latter, callers only hear your outgoing message and can't leave you one. You can record and store a different message for each mode, if you want to switch between the two, or use the curt message that comes with the product. You can play back messages through your computer's sound card, the modem or a telephone handset connected to the modem.

You can also retrieve messages from a remote location by dialling in and entering a four-digit security code, but the MessageSaver lacks voice prompts to lead you through that process.

A dialler application includes an address book with names and telephone numbers, but you can't import numbers you already have in another application.

All the device's functions are controlled by BVRP Software's PhoneTools 2.0 application. One of PhoneTools' big drawbacks is its inability to share the COM port to which the modem is connected. That means you can't run a remote-control application such as Traveling Software's LapLink Professional and PhoneTools at the same time.

I wasn't too happy with the answering machine either. You can't set it to answer in fewer than three rings, which is silly when you're using it only for fax or data. The fax capabilities of the software are basic but adequate for the occasional faxer.

The MessageSaver is a fine modem, and its other features are a nice bonus. If you don't already have a modem or fax software, it's a good package at a reasonable price.

To sign on as reseller, go to: Lee SchlesingerXircom steals ahead with combo cardsA certain Bill Gates once pre- dicted `every desk will have a computer and every computer will run Windows' and he was correct. Now another Gates, this time Dirk Gates of Xircom, is predicting that in the next few years `every PC will be mobile and will be connected by Xircom'. Will he be correct?

If current figures are anything to go by, then he'll be darn close. According to Xircom's director of marketing, Gerald Makos, the company is well on its way to achieving the target. `In worldwide markets, we now have 50 per cent of the combo card segment (local area network and modem), 50 per cent of the Fast Ethernet market and 20 per cent of the modem-only market.'

The company is faring well in the Asia-Pacific arena too, where it has built up a commanding lead in all but the modem sector. For example, Xircom now has 80 per cent of the combo card market in the region, 47 per cent of the LAN market and 17 per cent of the modem market.

`We only make our cards to connect mobile computers to networks. We feel it is our focus to address the growing needs of mobile computer users. These users have different needs from those that use regular PCs. For example, mobile products need to be more robust as they get thrown around a lot more,' Makos said. The company intends to focus on its new product line to be called RealPort.

The fact that many mobile products do not live up to the harshness of life on the road is a cause of frustration for many users. Products that have flimsy phone connectors are becoming a drag for most users.

As the handheld market stands today, two main forms are clear leaders, the clam-shell and the PalmPilot variety. Of these, only the clam-shell devices are capable of running Microsoft's WinCE operating system.

`WinCE devices are set to overtake the PalmPilot as the platform of choice for tomorrow's users. The handheld market today is where the notebook market was 10 years ago, with no standards coming to the fore. Today, these are no longer executive toys, they are now enterprise tools,' said Makos.

Xircom plans to target corporate IS managers as a priority for its new products. The company stressed that its focus would not be the handhelds themselves, but rather its RealPort technology. Xircom executives admitted that the Asian crisis had caused the company to scale back on some of its planned projects, but were pleased with the slight growth registered. By Philip Hallwhat's new from . . .

. . . Kingmax

Kingmax's new modem enables Internet connections at high rates up to 56Kbps across regular telephone lines.

The V.90/K56flex 56K USB modem comes complete with all the software and accessories needed for easy installation and immediate use. Key features include:

Compliance with Universal Serial Bus specification 1.0V.90, K56Flex, 56Kbps dual mode supportLED indicators (OH, RDY, PWR)56Kbps data receive and 33.6Kbps data transmit14.4Kbps fax send and receiveV42bis/MNP 5 data compressionV42/MNP 4 error correctionNo 115.2Kbps DTE speed up limitPortable compact sizeStandard 4-pin USB connector to PC and standard RJ-11 phone jackFCC, VCCI, A-Tick, NZ permit certifiedThe modem sells for a reseller price of $107. Interested resellers should call (02) 9648 4658.

. . . Lemel

Lemel's latest external modem is designed for aesthetics as well as function. Dubbed `The Batmobile' for its sleek black finish and its `driving lights', the Lemel 56Kbps modem supports K56flex technology as well as V.90, is auto- switchable and uses the renowned Rockwell chipset.

The Lemel 56Kbps modem is distributed by Synnex Australia and will sell for $122 RRP. Interested resellers should call 1300 651 667 for more information.

. . . Zoom

Zoom has developed both a cable modem and a digital subscriber line (DSL) modem, to be released once both cable and ADSL networks are available in Australia, possibly in June next year.

The release of the cable modem is dependent on Telstra being DOCSIS compliant, while the DSL modem requires Telstra to upgrade the exchanges.

Zoom/CableModems are quickly and easily installable by end users, incorporating a 10BaseT Ethernet interface for universal connectivity and Universal Serial Bus (USB) connection.

These features are combined with Zoom/HomeLAN, which connects computers through standard residential phone wiring, and ZoomAir Wireless, which offers wireless networking with simple PC Card installation for reliable, industry-standard 802.11 DSSS technology at the home or office.

Configuration is equally easy with Zoom's WebManage software, which allows any computer on the network to run diagnostics and control configuration of the Zoom/CableModem.

The modem is SNMP v3 with support for DOCSIS MIB and remote software upgrades, and MCNS DOCSIS 1.1 and 1.0 compliant.

It features IP filtering and exclusive content control, IP addressing that is static, dynamic, DHCP, NAT or PAT, and baseline privacy 56-bit DES encryption.

Support is available 80 hours a week via telephone plus 24/7 Web and Fax On-Demand and Web Support.

In addition to its cable modems, Zoom supports DSL protocols and will be releasing a DSL modem for the consumer market in the first half of 2000.

Zoom claims it will deliver an affordable and flexible transition to high-speed DSL communications by also providing a V.90 56K analog modem on the same PCI-format card.

The DSL modem will allow data download speeds of up to 1.5Mbps and data upload speeds of up to 384Kbps over ordinary telephone lines, using the ITU G.992.2 (G.Lite) protocol.

Both modems will sell for an estimated retail price of $499. Interested resellers should call 1300 300 842.

. . . NetComm

NetComm describes its Roadster II 56 Ultra modem as `a great value package to suit the online gamers, the small office user and the Internet power user'. Sleekly designed, the modem transmits and receives voice, data and facsimiles at speeds of up to 56Kbps.

Roadster II 56 Ultra Highlights

Dual K56Flex & V90 technology

External data/voice/ fax and speakerphone Error correction and data compressionMaximum speed of 56Kbps (download only)Maximum throughput 230.4KbpsRRP: $249

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