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Faster modems - at last some standard practice

The announcement of a new standard for 56K modems should make life easier for ordinary users who want to buy a faster modem. However, there are still a few details that need to be ironed out.

The first detail is a change of name. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has decided that the standard is to be called V.90, not V.pcm as originally announced. The formal ratification of the V.90 standard won't take place until September, but the technical details have now been agreed and the main modem manufacturers are aiming to have V.90 modems available by the end of next month.

These new modems will replace X2 and K56 Flex, the two rival types of 56K modem that caused such confusion in the market-place throughout 1997. Because X2 and K56 modems were incompatible, users who wanted to buy a new modem had to make sure that they bought the same type of modem as their Internet service provider (ISP). However, many ISPs were reluctant to invest in either type of equipment until they knew which one would emerge as the main standard. As a result, many Internet companies in the UK simply didn't bother to upgrade to 56K at all.

The announcement of the new standard has been welcomed by AOL, one of the world's largest Internet service providers. "We're looking forward to a standard," said Caryn Novak, AOL's network director for the UK. "The present situation with two separate technologies is a headache for us. It's doubled our workload and forced us to invest in more hardware."

The arrival of V.90 should simplify matters. The most important feature of V.90 modems is that they provide "interoperability". This means that a V.90 modem from one manufacturer will be able to communicate properly with V.90 modems from any other manufacturer. So ISPs can upgrade to V.90 without taking any risks, and their customers can buy V.90 modems knowing that there won't be any compatibility problems.

Anyone with an ounce of sense might ask why this has not been the case all along. However, as one modem manufacturer commented: "a year to agree a standard isn't that long for the ITU".

Now that the standard has been agreed, many existing X2 and K56 Flex modems can be upgraded to V.90 simply by downloading some free software from the manufacturer's Internet site. But before buying a new V.90 modem or upgrading an existing modem, you should check what your own ISP's upgrade plans are.

It's not at all clear how long it will take for ISPs to move to V.90. CompuServe refused to comment on the situation, which won't be much help to its thousands of customers. And there are many smaller Internet companies that have already invested in X2 or K56 Flex and won't be able to afford the upgrade to V.90 right away. There's not much point in upgrading your own modem to V.90 if your ISP hasn't also upgraded.

The transition from X2 and K56 Flex to V.90 will probably take place gradually this year. In the meantime, if you are planning to buy a modem you should do two things first: check with your ISP to see which of these standards they plan to support, and then make sure that any modem you buy can be upgraded free of charge when necessary.

Cliff Joseph