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56K modem wars may be near end

An ITU study group this week resolved two of the biggest barriers standing in the way of a 56K-bps modem standard, making approval of a common specification next month more likely than ever.

After failing in September to resolve the issues, which involve spectral shaping and mapping technology, the International Telecommunications Union this week voted in favor of a compromise proposed by Intel Corp. That compromise calls for the use of mapping technology from 3Com Corp. and spectral shaping from Motorola Inc.

The resolution is a breakthrough for the 56K-bps standard, which has been divided for several months between two incompatible camps: 3Com's x2, and the K56Flex technology from Rockwell Semiconductor Systems Inc. and Lucent Technologies Inc.

"It's never absolutely certain until it's done," said John Magill, chairman of the working party in charge of the standard. "But these were the two major issues holding things up, and they're out of the way now. "

The ITU is expected to pass the standard at a meeting in Geneva in January, Magill said. Once that happens, vendors should be able to ship standards-based products by mid-1998, even though the specification would not be officially ratified until September.

The standard will be a big relief to modem and chip set vendors.

"Modem prices have been declining so rapidly that it's taken the profit out of the business," said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Inc., in Tempe, Ariz. "They need to come out with a standard so [vendors] have an excuse to bring prices back up again."

Even 3Com, whose x2 technology is not represented as strongly as K56Flex in the standard proposal, is happy with the progress.

"We're pleased that we can move forward," said Neil Clemmons, vice president of marketing at 3Com's personal communications division, in Skokie, Ill.

Officials from Rockwell, not surprisingly, were thrilled as well.

"It's terrific; [several] issues have been resolved in favor of the Flex camp," said Vijay Parikh, vice president and general manager of the personal computing division at Rockwell, in Newport Beach, CA. "We're delighted by this particular decision."

Some vendors caution that work toward the standard is far from over.

"All the major obstacles have been removed, but there are still some subtle issues," said Bahman Barazesh, technical manager for modem products at Lucent Technologies, in Middletown, N.J. "We have a good chance to settle this thing, but there is still work to be done."

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