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.

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.

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