56K modem spec suffers setback

The 56Kbit/sec modem market has been thrown into a tailspin by an individual's patent claim that raises questions about who owns key pieces of the dial-up technology.

Uncertainty surrounding the claim has all but ensured that plans to finalise a 56Kbit/sec modem standard by January will be derailed, said Ken Krechmer, a standards committee member who planned to raise the patent issue at the ISPCon '97 conference in San Francisco last week.

Major modem makers contacted last week said they are now approaching adoption of the standard with caution until they see how the patent issue plays out. The standard was scheduled to be formalised - a step before finalisation - at an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) meeting in September.

"This was a very aggressive schedule, and it now is in jeopardy," said Krechmer, technical editor of the Communications Standards Review newsletter. "There's not a damn thing the tech-nical committee can do about it. It's a lawyer problem."

It now could be 12 months before customers are able to buy interoperable, standards-based 56Kbit/sec modems for Internet and LAN access.

Currently, there are two incompatible 56Kbit/sec modem technologies: one devel- oped by US Robotics and the other by Rockwell Semiconductor Systems and Lucent Technologies.

The man at the centre of the modem contro-versy is Brent Townshend. Little is known about him other than he claims to own the basic intellectual property key to any 56Kbit/sec modem. Townshend so far has not declared what he wants in return for letting others use his intellectual property.

A foreign patent search conducted by one of the modem vendors on the ITU committee turned up Townshend's claim - a broad patent filing on basic 56Kbit/sec pulse code modulation modem technology.

Standards committee members contacted last week said they were not familiar with Townshend.

But they said a committee member had contacted Townshend and he seemed willing to license his technology.