Resellers caught in crossfire of modem battle

Modems remain a key individual component in computer systems despite the attempts by many PC makers to incorporate the technology into the PC itself. The rapidly changing modem scene is one of the reasons modem makers have been able to remain a breed apart. The move to 56Kbit/sec technology for modems highlights this and also shows up potential problems for resellers, as Peter Young and John Costello reportThe marketing stoush over next-generation modems squirting data down phone lines at 56Kbit/sec could lethally impact on customer relations for resellers.

The rival technologies feature US Robotics/Texas Instruments' x2 chipset and code implementation versus K56flex from Rockwell/Lucent/Motorola.

US Robotics already has x2 on Australian shelves in the form of its flash-ROM upgradable Sportster and Courier lines. Netcomm's x2-compatible Roadster56 and InModem56 models are also in the market. Netcomm is hedging its bets by bringing out K56flex (K56) models in the next few weeks.

Banksia Technology and Hayes - both in the Rockwell K56 camp - plan to start shipping their offerings in the second week of July.

All of this presents end users and resellers with a major headache because no 56Kbit/sec standard has yet been set.

The referee in the dispute over which protocol will emerge victorious is the standardisation sector of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU-T), which has a reputation for taking its time.

It is in the process of forging the worldwide standard for PCM (pulse code modulation) which lies at the core of the new generation of 56Kbit/sec devices.

But its final recommendation is not expected until at least next January. Only after that will a V.PCM modem standard become the official protocol to which both USR and Rockwell will conform.

There is one bright spot in the form of an interim guidepost that should appear around September when a draft ITU-T recommendation is meant to appear.

Danger for resellers

If events follow historical patterns, USR will scoop the early adopters and power users but Rockwell and its followers will win the battle for the hearts and minds of the broad user base over the next 12 months.

However, the interim confusion over standards poses clear dangers to resellers.

They will have to understand the pitfalls of 56K and carefully illuminate them for their customers. Otherwise, they are going to be descended on by hordes of angry clients who discover too late that they have bought the wrong box for their needs. Here are four potential trouble zones which should be made crystal clear to customers:

1. Upgrade. How can the modem be

upgraded to whatever final standard

emerges? Will it need a software

upgrade, a chip switch or both?

What are the costs?

2. ISP. The customer needs to match his

modem technology to that used by his


3. Speed. Downloads will achieve speeds

close to 53K but uploads are still

restricted to 33.6Kbit/sec.

4. Phone exchange. If the customer's

local phone exchange is still analog,

his new box can't improve on

33.6Kbit/sec performance.

The rival Rockwell/Lucent/Motorola and USR/Motorola technologies are different facets of the same concept.

Their 56K modems are only possible because of the digital connections most Internet and online service providers have with the public switched phone network.

Those connections allow data received from providers to pass through a highly efficient digital-to-analog conversion on its way to users' desktops.

The new generation of modems takes advantage of this to achieve their download speeds.

Data going the other way - that is, up the pipe from the user to the service provider - cannot avoid the analog-to-digital conversion process. As a result, upload speeds are still restricted to the old limit of 33.6Kbit/sec even for K56 modems.

If neither side of the connection has a digital link to the PSTN, 33.6K will be the top speed both ways even if K56 modems are sitting on each end.

So any customers buying the new generation of modems for high-speed, two-way applications such as point-to-point videoconferencing are going to be bitterly disappointed.

Nor can the phone line from the user's modem pass through a non-digital exchange on the way to his ISP without undoing the 56K technology. Such an exchange introduces an extra analog-to-digital conversion point which limits even downloads to 33.6Kbit/sec.

Not known

Market demand for 56K is still to be demonstrated and Telstra's continued tinkering with OnRamp price-points may make ISDN better value for the SOHO dollar.

"It all adds to the uncertainty," said Luke Carruthers, secretary of the Internet Industry Association of Australia, who is also director of strategic development for a Sydney-based ISP, Magna Data.

"They want to make sure there is enough business value in 56K to warrant the investment."

When they do jump, odds are that more will choose to come down on Rockwell's side of the technology fence than US Robotics'.

The reason is that Rockwell's tech- nology has been embraced by more of the key central-site modem suppliers, including Cisco Systems, Ascend and Microcom.

On the upgrades front, Banksia, Netcomm, Hayes and USR are all promising their modem models will be software upgradable for little or no fee.

However, the promise may depend on whether the final standard can be accommodated without a chip change.

Netcomm marketing manager Chris McPherson said a charge would have to be levied if that turned out to be the case.

Early sales of Netcomm's x2 systems indicate they were being chosen by about 20 per cent of buyers in the SOHO and retail areas, according to McPherson.

But Michael Richardson, director of Brisbane reseller Computer Hand Holding, who handles both USR and Netcomm systems, said sales of the fast modems have been thin and the majority of users "haven't even gone to 33.6 yet".

56Kbit/sec modems


K56flex from Rockwell

x2 from Texas Instruments

Who lines up behind which?


Rockwell, Lucent, Motorola, Cisco, Banksia, Hayes, Ascend, Microcom (Compaq), Microsoft (possibly) and Netcommx2:

US Robotics, Motorola and Netcomm

First to market?

US Robotics with x2 technology


Don't expect anything concrete before the end of the year.

Sample price differential?

US Robotics 56Kbit/sec Sportster Flash - $229 RRPBanksia Wave SP 33Kbit/sec - $299 RRP (but includes other features)ARN verdict?

Early adopters and power users will buy US Robotics' modems.

The company has said it will guarantee its x2-based products will meet any standards when they are set.

USR counters incompatibility fears

US Robotics has announced a plan to assuage user fears that its 56Kbit/sec modems might not win the battle to set the industry standard.

It has come up with a three-point "buyer protection" plan - including a promise to upgrade its modems free, and other 56Kbit/sec products, to standards set by the International Telecommunication Union next year.

Some industry observers saw the US Robotics statement as an answer to the recent announcement that Microsoft was testing 56Kbit/sec technology from Rockwell/Lucent for MSN.

US Robotics has been in a race with Rockwell and Lucent to establish market share by rushing to market incompatible 56Kbit/sec modems.

"I think what US Robotics is trying to combat here is the problem that users are worried about getting stuck with modems that don't meet standards once they are set," said Kieran Taylor, an analyst at TeleChoice. "Both sides are trying to garner as much marketshare as they can before standards are set."

Taylor said the Microsoft announcement is a blow to US Robotics. "Any time Microsoft backs and implements something, it tends to become the standard," Taylor said.

Price the point for modems

We all know the modem business is price sensitive. Demonstrating just how sensitive is the comparison between Banksia's Wave SP 336 modem, its Simplecomputing no-frills brand, and US Robotics first 56K modem - the Sportster Flash.

Using the current 33.6 technology, the Wave features simultaneous voice and data (SVD). SVD technology allows users to talk and send data simultaneously on a single phone line. When one person sends a file to another with both using SVD, the two users can talk through a speakerphone on each modem as they view the file at the same time.

Banksia'a Colin Dagger said sales of its Wave modem with SVD were very good. The modem represents the top end of the 33.6Kbit/sec SVD modem market.

Bundled with voice/data/fax communications software, Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 and games samplers, the Wave is compatible with Windows 95 and 3.x.

Recommended retail at the launch late last year was $399. Banksia is now advertising it at an RRP of $299.

At the lower end of the market Banksia's Simplecomputing brand name is advertising a no-frills desktop 33.6K modem with an RRP of $199.

Turning to the 56K technology, US Robotics is pushing its entry-level Sportster Flash fax modem based on the x2 technology for $229 RRP. That includes a speakerphone and fax software.

Modems move from corporate to family marketBy John CostelloF undamental changes in the modem market are taking place at the same time as the debate over the merits of the competing K56 and x2 technologies.

Andrew Phillips, managing director of Hayes Microcomputer Products in Australia, sees the corporate and business users moving to ISDN.

That leaves the modem resellers with the SOHO and family market.

"Modems are becoming a commodity business," he said. "The problem is the market you are now dealing with tends to be not very computer-literate.

"People are buying modems for the first time and that's a bit like buying a washing machine for the first time - you know what you want it for but have no idea of competing brands," said Phillips.

Firmly in the K56 camp, Hayes in Australia has been working with the local subsidiary of Ascend Communications on R&D for 56Kbit/sec modems.

The Hayes/Ascend development team have been achieving throughput speeds of better than 50Kbit/sec in tests between their respective Sydney and Melbourne testing centres.

"The launch of 56Kbit/sec modems based on the Rockwell standard is likely to push ISPs into moving in that direction for their dial-up services," Phillips said.

"It will add a new dimension to the type of applications and access availability ISPs can give," he added.