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DSL Industry Inches Towards Standardization

As digital subscriber line deployment in the U.S. continues its stall in competition against cable for broadband customer popularity, one organization has recently wrapped up a conference to standardize one of the many problems facing the beleaguered broadband industry.

The DSL Forum, a rare conglomeration of incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), competitive LECs (CLECs), modem manufacturers and software companies, wrapped up its semi-annual conference last week in Atlanta with recommendations on a standard for DSL modems.

One of the problems plaguing the DSL industry is the lack of technical continuity between the many modem makers and the models they manufacture. This creates problems for the end user, who is often required to re-configure and re-install new hardware and software when moving from one Internet service provider (ISP) to another.

An equipment interoperability standard would eliminate much of the hassle required to provision DSL for broadband customers, who must marry up their DSL modems with the DSL access multiplexer (DSLAM) at the telephone company's central office (CO).

For example: Customer Smith might have subscribed to Company A for DSL Internet service. Company A, which uses a Cisco Systems Inc. , DSL modem for its service, goes out of business and Smith is stuck looking for another provider. Smith signs up with Company B, another DSL provider, which offers the service using a Lucent Technologies Inc. modem.

Since the Cisco modem likely isn't compatible with the DSLAM at the new company, Smith is forced to get another modem and start the auto-configuration process from scratch. Smith is also left with another DSL modem, and if he's like a growing number of DSL users around the U.S., he's probably got a growing collection of unusable DSL modems from defunct DSL providers.

Jay Fausch, the DSL Forum's chairman of the marketing committee, said that the speedy implementation of DSL standards is critical to the development and success of the technology.

"The mass deployment of almost any technology has been predicated on the standards created," Fausch said. "If you look at the VCR as an example, where you had a couple competing technologies, VHS and Beta, that were vying for the hearts and minds of the consumer. You didn't hear a lot about the vendors who were making the equipment, but when the VHS vendors standardized their equipment, you really saw their sales take off."

The organization is now putting together Working Text 62 as a benchmark for the new standard, which members are expected to approve at the December meeting in Munich, Germany. The paper is on the fast track because it focuses on Asymmetric DSL (ADSL), the most popular and inexpensive flavor of DSL for residential consumers. Committee members are now accepting applications from independent test labs to conduct the interoperability tests.

Two other reports, WT 59 and WT 64, are expected to address the problems of DSL auto-configuration and are slowly making their way through the DSL Forum Auto-configuration Working Group. Like DSL modems themselves, vendors have different protocol standards for connecting the modem to the DSLAM at the CO.

WT 59, which addresses the technical specifications for the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) and Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) used in ADSL, is expected to pass a final ballot at its December meeting.

WT 64 deals with the high end of DSL service like Symmetric DSL (SDSL), which use Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) for bandwidth-intensive applications like video conferencing, online gaming and video on demand. Members are also expected to vote on the initiative at the December meeting.

It behooves the many members of the DSL community to come together to standardize its practices, before DSL as a technology platform renders itself obsolete. Companies like Covad Communications Group Inc. and Verizon Communications , normally fierce rivals, have been meeting with other DSL Forum members to find common ground with equipment vendors.

When the technology was first introduced in the mid-1990s, DSL was predicted to dominate the high-speed Internet community. The thinking at the time ran that since everyone in the U.S. had a telephone, and the platform was inherently more secure than its closest competitor, cable Internet, DSL would run away in the high-speed market.

But a deadly combination of DSL provider bankruptcies, the lack of a DSL standard (unlike cable, which has combined under the DOCSIS 1.1 modem standard) and lack of consumer confidence in the product has left the industry adrift.

The Yankee Group, an online research company, predicts that under current conditions, cable will continue to dominate the industry, with approximately 15.7 million subscribers by the end of 2005, compared to DSL, which is expected to only garner 10.5 million customers in that time.