Chip suppliers and OEMs are about to display the first signs of interoperability for the consumer-oriented digital subscriber line (DSL) cable-modem standard, but key hardware makers remain frustrated with the technology and hint that mass deployment could be delayed for another year.
At next week's Supercomm '99 trade show in Atlanta, more than 30 chip makers and OEMs will demonstrate that their respective products are compatible with the long-awaited
G.Lite standard, a high-speed digital-modem technology that promises to deliver data at 1.5 Mbits/s-roughly 25 times the speed of today's analog products. G.Lite is a scaled-down version of asynchronous DSL (ADSL), a business-oriented technology that can transfer data at 8 Mbits/s.
Some believe the "G.Lite Interoperability Showcase" demonstration at Supercomm will allay fears about compatibility issues with the technology, and pave the way for rapid deployment of DSL services.
One of the stumbling blocks with ADSL and G.Lite is that chip makers and OEMs have a slightly different interpretation of the protocol's discrete multitone (DMT) signaling standard, a software technology that chops up data over a phone line into 128 channels running at 4 kHz.
Five companies develop and license DMT software technology, and all are scrambling to develop interoperable products to get G.Lite to market.
"Fundamentally, [the DMT] suppliers use the same algorithms," said Bob Lee, director of marketing for Integrated Telecom Express Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif.-based supplier of DSL chips. "But in some of the gray areas, there are some fundamental differences in these DMT offerings. That's what vendors hope to resolve at Supercomm."
Modem-equipment makers, however, remain pessimistic about a quick G.Lite product ramp. Especially skeptical are Taiwanese companies. Taiwan was the world's largest analog-modem supplier last year, with a 37.9% market share, according to the government-sponsored Market Intelligence Center, Taipei.
Taiwan-based modem suppliers, which sell their parts to the world's top PC makers, are also developing G.Lite products for those customers, which include Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM.
"Like everybody else in Taiwan, we are preparing for large OEM orders [for DSL modems]," said Curtis Yang, vice president of marketing for Taipei-based modem maker CIS Technology Inc. "But there seems to be no real [DSL] standard, and the market is not there yet."
CIS is shipping small volumes of an internal DSL modem to Compaq. The modem reportedly is built around a combination ADSL/G.Lite-V.90 chipset developed by Alcatel.
At the same time, competing DSL chip makers-including GlobeSpan Semiconductor, Integrated Telecom Express, and Lucent Technologies-have announced a flurry of CIS design wins.
"We are also designing [DSL modems] with various other chipsets, but the problem is that some of the chipsets have different specifications and are not interoperable," Yang said. He did not elaborate.
Other modem makers expressed similar concerns.
"In the second half of this year the [G.Lite] standard will be finalized, and chipsets with standard specifications will follow," said Sean Chang, project manager for Taipei-based GVC Corp., Taiwan's largest modem maker. "However, we don't believe the [G.Lite] market will take off until the second half of 2000."
Indeed, despite the hype for G.Lite and other DSL services, the market remains a disappointment.
For example, many chip makers and OEMs early in 1998 promised that G.Lite products and services would hit the consumer space by the latter part of the year. However, the phone carriers have also been dragging their feet in bringing DSL services to the consumer market, thereby opening the door for the rival technology, cable modems, which provide high-speed Internet access over cable lines.
"We're just beginning to see a lot of G.Lite activity from the carriers and OEMs," said Greg Sheppard, an analyst with Dataquest Inc., San Jose. "However, we're in the ramp-up stage right now. It could take three or four years [before large-scale G.Lite deployment occurs]."
Still, the ADSL/G.Lite segment is projected to reach at least 3 million subscribers worldwide by next year, up from just 25,000 in 1997 and 100,000 in 1998, according to In-Stat Group, Scottsdale, Ariz.
But another pressing issue is that the phone carriers also sell DSL-modem products to end users, and subsidize them as well, which is a costly business model, Lee noted.
"Right now, the carriers are bundling the DSL services and modems together for end users in order to ensure that
the product works," Lee said. "But in my opinion, the only way we will see mass deployment of G.Lite services is when consumers are able to buy their modems in the retail channel. But I don't see
that happening until the second half of next year."
The key issue for G.Lite is clear: interoperability among the various DMT camps. Several DSL chip makers, including Advanced Micro Devices and Itex, are backing Alcatel's DMT technology. Others, including Analog Devices, Lucent, and Texas Instruments, have taken out licenses for Aware Inc.'s DMT scheme.
Fujitsu, meanwhile, is backing a DMT technology from Orckit Communications Ltd., while Conexant is going with a scheme from PairGain Technologies Inc. And GlobeSpan is developing its own DMT coding technology.
At Supercomm, chip makers and OEMs alike are crossing their fingers in hopes that these schemes will interoperate. Otherwise, the market could be further stunted, said Dori Braun, director of marketing for DSL chip maker Centillium Technology Corp., Fremont, Calif.
"From my point of view, I hope all chip makers can pass the test," Braun said.