OpenDSL Project Drives Standards, Prods Retail

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider digital subscriber line providers a big fan of the cable industry's long-standing strategy of building a mass retail market for cable modems.

Essentially mimicking the DOCSIS interoperability testing model created by the cable industry and Cable Television Laboratories Inc., the DSL Forum and a large conglomerate of DSL service providers, equipment vendors and systems integrators have joined to create their own interoperability initiative, called "OpenDSL."

Like DOCSIS, OpenDSL's goal is to design and build interoperability standards for DSL network and premise devices and, ultimately, to conjure up a line of certified, "plug-and-play" modems for the consumer market.

Though DSL has enjoyed some success among business customers, a number of competing standards and operational issues have prevented the technology from matching cable's impact on the residential battleground.

"The DSL industry has been segmented in terms of how many standards there are," said Kinetic Strategies Inc. president Michael Harris. "Clearly, that couldn't be done with several standards, because standards don't ensure interoperability."

Both DSL service agents and equipment manufacturers have both apparently been aware of that issue for a while. It has just taken DSL longer to blaze that path as a unified front.

"When we engaged with vendors and service providers, we discovered that the DSL industry was facing a phenomenal issue today," said Cisco System Inc. DSL business unit director of marketing Enzo Signore, who is helping to spearhead OpenDSL. "It takes a long time, a lot of truck rolls and expense dollars for service providers to install DSL service at the customer's premises. That makes this whole operation unsustainable from a business standpoint."

Enzo said OpenDSL will also address an even bigger problem: developing an interoperability standard that isn't too cumbersome or complex for consumers to handle.

OpenDSL won't mark the first time the industry has attempted to crack the residential market through consumer-friendly standards. G.Lite-a best effort, "splitterless" DSL standard designed to ease customer-installations and forge a mass retail sale market for DSL equipment and services-has failed to spawn better than negligible support.

OpenDSL's goal "is to make DSL equivalent to v.90 for 56K modems," Harris said. "A couple of years ago, there was a push behind G.Lite, but it just didn't happen. [DSL] is again trying to regroup and keep pace with the leadership the cable industry has taken in standards and interoperability."

This time around, DSL vendors and service operators plan to work on the specifications harmoniously and royalty-free. That process, which could generate a formal specification by the end of this month, will be owned and managed by the DSL Forum, said Signore.

A solid draft should be completed in 2000, followed by implementations of the spec late this year and into early 2001, he added.

The DSL Forum said in a press release that it expects to make OpenDSL-compliant products available by early next year.

If CableLabs' history of rigorous, technical testing is a guide, that timeframe might be too aggressive, Harris said. A year from now might be a more realistic target, he added.

"The actual integrity from a technical standpoint that CableLabs has shown in certification has been pretty impressive," he said. "By no means has it been some kind of rubber-stamp initiative."

Dave Burstein, editor of and host of The Personal Computer Show on WBAI-FM in New York, said he expects OpenDSL to achieve that goal quickly, because DSL chipsets are designed to be upgraded in firmware for any necessary changes.

"They can be adjusted rapidly," he said.

OpenDSL also will create a third-party certification body to handle product interoperability testing, another element of the initiative that smacks of CableLabs' DOCSIS method.

Creating one certification house makes sense for the DSL industry, said Signore, because all of the separate in-house testing by service providers and vendors was draining too many financial and human resources.

Signore declined to shed light on where the OpenDSL lab will reside or who will run it, but said more details will be announced in about six weeks.

Though OpenDSL mirrors CableLabs and DOCSIS on many fronts, there is a key distinction between the two, Harris noted.

"The difference," he said, "is that OpenDSL is service-provider and equipment-vendor driven. CableLabs is more of a top-down arrangement, with the buyers controlling the process."

OpenDSL-led by big names such as SBC Communications Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc.-has already drummed up plenty of early support from the DSL industry.

Other service providers supporting OpenDSL include Alltel Corp., CAIS Internet Inc., Digital Broadband Communications Inc., Hanaro Telecom, Network Plus, Pathnet, Request DSL and Vectris Communications.

DSL equipment suppliers and systems integrators that have pledged support include 3Com Corp., Cayman Systems Inc., Cisco, Efficient Networks Inc., GlobeSpan Inc., Intel Corp. Netopia Corp. Texas Instruments Inc., Virata Corp., Westell Technologies Inc., Xircom Inc., KPMG Consulting LLC, Pomeroy Select Integration Solutions Inc. and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

Although it boasts a long list of backers, OpenDSL still needs to snap up additional buy-in before it can call itself a true, industry-wide effort. Several prominent DSL service providers are absent from the list, notably Northpoint Communications Inc., Verizon Communications, Rhythms NetConnections Inc. and Covad Communications.

OpenDSL plans to shore up support in short order, however.

"We plan to contact additional vendors and service suppliers by the end of August," Signore said, adding that the Web site is expected to promote cross-industry communication.

Data-heavy DSL's more robust cousin, VDSL (very-high-speed digital subscriber line), also took steps last week to accelerate technical standards, a move that could fuel what is considered a viable competitor to digital cable.

Following a work session in Paris, a group of 30 communications technology companies led by British Telecommunications, France Telecom and Qwest announced the formation of a new standards body whose goal is to develop full-service digital-subscriber-line technology (FS-VDSL) for video, data and voice services over legacy phone lines in North America, Europe and Asia.

The committee will collaborate on FS-VDSL standards that combine copper wire-twisted pair infrastructure with fiber optics.

Qwest (formerly U S West) has adopted that technology to service about 50,000 customers in Phoenix.

The FS-VDSL consortium-which will work closely with the DSL Forum and other "key bodies"-said it plans to complete a set of standards within six months, and to build on work already completed by the Full Service Access Networks (FSAN) initiative.