US Report: Adoption of standard could speed acceptance of ADSL

A high-speed standard for accessing the Internet over today's copper telephone lines passed a critical test Thursday when the International Telecommunications Union gave it the technical thumbs up.

The vote is seen as a boon for both plugged-in consumers and for the telecommunications industry, which is fighting cable companies to be the first to hook up homes to high-speed Internet access. The soon-to-be standard, called G.Lite, simplifies installing necessary hardware and connecting to the Internet via a technology known as asymmetric digital subscriber line, or ADSL.

ADSL takes data off dirt roads and puts it on the highway. Most G.Lite services offer connection speeds of up to 1.5Mbps -- about 30 times that of today's fastest modems. "The ITU has accepted the work that has been done so far on G.Lite," said John Goldman, communication director for telecommunications provider BellSouth Corp. and spokesman for the Universal ADSL Working Group. "They are telling the manufacturers that they can go and incorporate the technology into their products."

The UAWG lobbied successfully to incorporate several technical portions of their own Universal ADSL proposal into the coming standard. The ITU vote "determined" G.Lite as the standard, which means that -- unless a major flaw is found between now and final ratification -- G.Lite will become the standard for consumer ADSL access.

Even though the final standard has not been ratified, major network hardware companies are expected to release products compatible with the fledgling standard. "I expect several announcement of [G-Lite-compatible] modems soon," said David Cooperstein, senior analyst with market researcher Forrester Research Inc. "Since they have cable to contend with, the telecoms will want to get this out as soon as possible." That's not surprising. Today's 56Kbps modem standard, for example, was determined in February 1998. Hardware manufactures had compliant products shipping weeks later, well before the standard was ratified in last month.

Final ratification of the G.Lite standard is expected to take place next June. "The beauty of G.Lite is it will result in interoperability -- where ever you go, whatever hardware you use, your ADSL modem will work," said Mark Hubscher, director of high-speed access technology for Ameritech Corp. The standard will also make it easier and cheaper to install G.Lite -- so-called "splitterless" -- ADSL in the home. Today's ADSL hardware requires the local telephone company to come to the user's house and install a splitter, a device that separates the voice signal on the line from the data. G.Lite makes the splitter, and thus the entire visit, unnecessary.

"G.lite lowers the cost of the installation, because you don't have to roll a truck," said Claude Romans, senior analyst with communications technology watcher Ryan Hankin Kent Inc. That could help ADSL shorten a two-year lead that its major rival -- the cable modem -- has today in the race for the consumer. "[The cable companies] do have a head start on us," acknowledged BellSouth's Goldman, "but that doesn't mean they will maintain that head start. For us, things start slowly, because -- like a big battleship -- it takes time for us to turn around."

Before steaming ahead, however, ADSL needs to become a better deal for the consumer than it is today, said Forrester's Cooperstein. "ADSL is still more expensive than cable modems and, right now, that means the customer is getting the same thing for more money," he said.

There are other problems. "ADSL has to be careful of cannibalisation," said Cooperstein, pointing out that most ADSL connections will come at the sacrifice of the telecom companies' existing dial-up customers.

Still, the competition from cable may actually help ADSL in the long run, said RHK's Romans.

Unlike ISDN, a legacy technology that has essentially been written off as the answer to mainstream Internet access, ADSL has been developed as a competitive product from the ground up. That has forced the telecoms to make it a better product -- one that actually has a chance to live.