If cable's telco competitors have their way, digital-subscriber-line modems will be perched next to their cable-modem rivals on the shelves of a big-box retail outlet near you.
Though the DSL industry has not had a Cable Television Laboratories Inc. to create standardized, interoperable modems, it does have the DSL Forum. The forum, which represents some 230 DSL-equipment vendors and technology providers, has made significant headway with interoperability testing in recent months.
That could lead to the arrival of retail DSL modems in mainstream stores by 2003, according to forum president Bill Rodey.
"We've identified that the creation of a retail market for DSL consumer-electronics equipment would remove one major obstacle to getting to a mass market," Rodey said. "Like the cell phone and the fax and the personal computer and countless other products before, DSL could experience extreme growth if we unleash the consumer-electronics providers through the retail chain to combine application and DSL access technology into the same boxes."
For some time, the DSL Forum has worked on interoperability issues, staging numerous events and test opportunities for vendors. Tests have covered the physical, data and network links of the computing Open Systems Interconnection stack, "and over the coming months we will go further up the stack to make sure we have full, end-to-end interoperability," said Rodey.
The forum also has created a program to set up independent testing labs throughout the world, giving consumer-electronics manufacturers a ready place to try out their gear. Several such facilities have been set up so far, including a lab in Burbank, Calif.
"This way, we can monitor in general how suppliers are doing against the requirements, and make sure that we don't have any disconnect," Rodey noted.
The forum expects to see gear qualified by the labs starting in early 2003, "but it will be a ramp up to interoperability," Rodey said. Already, some DSL modems are available in retail stores on the East Coast, he added.
One factor that's made DSL interoperability easier nowadays is a decision by U.S. telcos to switch to a uniform Discrete Multitone (DMT) line-code scheme. Getting the providers to agree on a functionality baseline remains a major challenge, though.
Such a baseline includes the setup of virtual private networks, how services are subscribed via the DSL Access Multiplexer (DSLAM), the process for establishing sessions and which switching protocols are used.
"Getting a modem to talk to a DSLAM, shoot, we've been demonstrating that for four years. It's what happens upstream from there," Rodey said. "Each of the major [local exchange carriers] have established the networks according to their own goals. And so, the most difficult thing in getting to interoperability has been getting the LECs to at least establish a baseline of functionality.
"They can certainly differentiate above that, but with a baseline, you have a modem that can move with you."
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