Doors are open for v.pcm 56k modems

It's all over but the shouting for the long-awaited 56Kbps technology standard. The International Telecommunications Union, which has been meeting in Geneva, has completed the technical specifications of the standard for 56Kbps modems.

The standard, known as v.pcm, was formally approved last Friday. Still, it will take a few months before products are truly interoperable and the standard is officially ratified.

It took 11 months for the ITU to reach an agreement, a relatively short period as far as standards are concerned, but not a moment too soon for users and industry observers. "The industry has really been hurting for months from the lack of a standard," said Ernie Raper, an analyst at VisionQuest 2000, in Moorpark, Calif.

The 56Kbps modems, introduced in late 1996, can receive up to 14 pages of single-spaced text per second. But sales have been badly disappointing, however, because modem makers could not agree to a single standard.

Until now, two competing and non-interoperable 56Kbps technologies-K56Flex from Rockwell Semiconductor Systems Inc. and Lucent Technologies (LU), and x2 from 3Com Corp. (COMS)/U.S. Robotics-have been slugging it out. The lack of interoperability has made some users and Internet service providers gun-shy about buying into 56K before a standard was set.

Vendors plan to ship standard-based products before the end of the first quarter, even though ISPs may not yet be hooked up to support them, and it will take one more meeting in September for the ITU to officially ratify the standard.

"I expect the marketing wars to get products out to be fierce," said Lisa Pelgrim, an analyst at Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif. 3Com, for its part, plans to be the first out of the gate before the end of the first quarter with a shipment of v.pcm modems along with upgrade software for existing x2 modems.

"Once a draft standard is set, everybody goes ahead and ships their products," one 3Com official said. "[The] September formal ratification ... is just a formality."

That may be so, but additional software upgrades are likely to be necessary before all v.pcm modems are truly interoperable. "V.pcm products and upgrades shipped in advance of Sept. 15 ... may require additional upgrades to conform to the final standard," said Ken Krechmer, technical editor of Communications Standards Review, of Palo Alto, Calif., who attended the Geneva meeting. "But v.pcm products are usually software upgradable, so such adjustments should be simple for early purchasers."

Some users, however, remain justifiably wary of software upgrades, having been burned in the past. "It's always good to have a standard [because] it makes it easier for me to transfer files to other people without having to worry that they have the same hardware as I do," said Jeff Mintun, an analyst at Six Flags Theme Parks Inc., in Grand Prairie, Texas. Mintun's 3Com Sportster modem was incapacitated by a buggy update last year.

"As far as upgrading to it, I'm certainly not going to take their word for it that it's going to work," he said. "I have the flash ROM downgrade that I had to use the last time an upgrade didn't work-and it'll stay close to me."

The ITU agreement will boost modem sales significantly, industry executives said. "Modems are something people don't understand, so they tend to turn to experts," including consumer magazines, said Neil Clemmons, vice president of marketing at 3Com's personal communications division. "This opens up the OK from the press to buy the modems."

Partly based on this agreement, the number of modems shipped each year likely will rise to 75 million by the year 2000 from 50 million in 1997, according to VisionQuest 2000, a market researcher.