Consider this: "The Internet in its present form is far too slow and frustrating for mass-market use in the community. Cable modems, better backbone networks, new content caching and server technology will go a long way towards solving this problem". So runs the publicity blurb for Cable Internet, an ISP that has been extolling the virtues of cable modems for some time.
The technology certainly sounds impressive; 30Mbps instead of the usual 56Kbps, and new applications including multimedia-based business, virtual libraries and healthcare. It's no surprise that the company said that "cable modems will bring the Internet to life".
The only problem is, it hasn't happened, and it is showing few signs of doing so. It's worth looking at why not in some depth because the development of the cable modem is unique in IT.
Normally, devices start off in business or defence and the big money gets spent on developing the technology as a result.
This time around, the drive for the technology is being led by the residential sector. It will have an effect on the corporate environment in the long term. Ironically, the other facets within a corporate network are starting to drive the demand for faster communications - something cable modems can, in theory, supply quite advantageously.
Buying a system for a corporate network used to be straightforward, so the rumours go. This is a bit of a myth in the first place. There have been standards and more standards and disputes over the same, but things have worked themselves out more or less straightforwardly, eventually.
Things have changed lately, however, due to a number of factors. First, the presence of the corporate intranet and its increasing prevalence means getting hooked up is increasingly important. Second, ISDN is becoming more and more of a standard, leading to some doubts over whether the 56K modem will take off as predicted. Third, ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line) is already looking like a viable alternative in the UK.
The choice is alarming and the question of whether cable modems can survive springs all too easily to mind to muddy the issue. They started off with a disadvantage; the standard under which they operate was agreed only last December, which was far from helpful, and it has yet to be ratified by the IEEE.
Understandably, not every manufacturer is enamoured to the technology.
Psion Dacom's product manager for modems, Nabeel Manda, sees the field as particularly limited at the moment.
"The take-up in the UK is very low at the moment; you're looking at somewhere under 100,000 units," he said.
The absence of a standard has not been a help, and the advance of faster ordinary modem technology is likely to lead people to hold back on buying.
Mike Valiant, marketing manager at cable modem manufacturer 3Com, agrees that the lack of a standard has been a problem, but suggests that the resolution of the issue and the emergence of the MCNS standard represents an opportunity rather than just another tired standards story.
"US Robotics (a 3Com brand since its acquisition a few years ago) was part of developing the standard, and we were involved at a very early stage," he said. "We helped write the spec because we want to see an open market very soon."
A key issue is whether the spec has arrived too late. Manda believes ISDN is a better bet for manufacturers to invest in since it has the larger infrastructure already. It is worth looking into the position in advance of any declaration on standards, and how companies had to buy and sell cable modem equipment up until that point.
In the absence of MCNS, any potential buyer had to talk to their cable supplier which may or may not have been able to sell them a high-speed modem compatible with their particular cable installation. If the customer changed address, they would have to buy again if the supplier were different in their new area, since the modem would be incompatible, and the incentive against buying anything other than a standard modem was understandably considerable.
A useful comparison, ironically, is with ISDN companies prior to the establishment of Euro-ISDN - they were all offering something that was almost, but not quite, totally compatible with the offerings from the competition. Until this was ironed out, nobody was getting anywhere.
It would be good at this point to pause and roll out a success story of some description; company B saves #X millions by installing cable modems, a Great British Success, stuff like that, but as Valiant rightly says, there are very few cable modems actually over here at the moment. To find a decent-sized installation you have to go to Santa Clara, California, from where, a few weeks ago, Bay Networks sold more than 120,000 of them to business and domestic users worldwide, and claims to have deployed enough equipment to support some 3 million homes. It has also signed a contract with Cogeco Cable of Ontario, Canada, to provide its LANCity modems for use in all future Wave internet access applications.
Bay sees the world market ramping up as the demand for broader bandwidth increases. Service providers are offering Internet access, videoconferencing and telecommuting access. It was the speed that attracted Cogeco - Bay claims its modems perform at a maximum of 10Mbps, some 1,000 times faster than a dial-up 28.8Kbps connection and still ridiculously faster than the emerging 56K technology.
There are chinks in the armour, though, as Psion Dacom's Manda points out, because the speed slows down depending on how many people are on the network. Bay tries to get around this with a transmission protocol that allows for more efficient use of bandwidth.
Even Bay has yet to see any real interest in the UK, though. If only 35% of UK homes are connected to cable at all, then the number that want cable modems will be a small proportion of what is already a small minority.
However, Paul Trowbridge, analyst with the company, sees it picking up at the moment. "We are doing trials in certain areas and working with the cable companies," he said, although he conceded that most of the cable organisations have only just got into providing telephone as well as television, and are not set up for full-blown ISP status. "We are helping them develop their business plans," he added. Elsewhere in Europe there is more penetration, he said.
For hard and fast facts it is worth looking at what the analysts say.
Ovum, from which the 35% penetration figure above comes, has done a lot of research on the subject. The company is clear on the nature of the problem - some 80% of the cables already laid in the UK already have two-way communications capability, so the standard is not a problem, it is simply the take-up. Even problems surrounding noise on the line - a problem in the US - are less common here since the installations are mostly newer.
The European CE Marketing Initiative is set to reduce the issue even further over here.
Equally salient is Ovum's white paper on the subject, Cable Modems - Stealing the Broadband Market by consultant Robin Hearn. He makes what ought to be the obvious point about telecommunications companies being threatened by this new broadband standard, so one effect for the corporate market should be that its networking costs should come down as the competition hots up. Ovum is very positive about the technological advances; however, like Psion Dacom, it has reservations about the potential uptake in the UK. There are technical limitations, said Hearn: there is no guarantee that bandwidth will be available to individual users for the total length of time they need it, there is no assurance on quality of upstream bandwidth and there remain question marks over the network's security. It seems unlikely for the moment that real-time transactions will be a likely application, for all of the above reasons, and because of that it is reasonable to anticipate an even slower take-up in the business market. Also crucial to the business market is the idea of ensuring smooth migration to any new technology, and as yet it is far from clear that the cable companies offer this.
Whether cable modems will reach their full potential in the corporate market or end up overtaken by ISDN is a moot point. The facts seem loaded against cable modem; the installers of cable seem a lot more inclined to look towards the domestic, Soho style of market than the bigger customers, and even then they go for the Victorian terraces rather than the more modern style of house. This, explains Andrew Morrow, another product manager from Psion Dacom, is because the front gardens tend to be shorter so they can utilise less cable per "hit".
"It means that the cable companies are targeting people for whom cable modems are not going to be their forte," he commented. "They are really looking at the former satellite user."
As regards linking to businesses, the cable modem suppliers are inevitably hindered by the lack of cables that get hooked up to industrial estates.
As 3Com's Valiant said, they just don't link their cables into that environment so there is next to no chance of establishing that sort of link. Not that 3Com will fight shy of selling to business where appropriate, it's just that unless the corporates are suddenly going to start installing wall-to-wall Simpsons and Star Trek as happens to everyone who installs Sky One in their offices, their HQs are likely to remain cable-free zones.
"If they have people working from home or elsewhere, I'd see it as a step up from ISDN for remote access," he claimed.
However, is it really ISDN that cable standards need to fight to get into people's offices, or is it ADSL? ADSL has a lot going for it, and long-term it will almost certainly end up faster. Valiant believes this will only be a problem "if British Telecom gets its finger out and delivers a service at a reasonable price". At the moment he does not see this happening, and since BT is only now waking up to the need to reduce the cost of ISDN if it is ever going to happen, this appears a reasonable point of view.
Hearn, for his part, predicts a worldwide installed base of 20 million by 2005, up from a projected 4.5 million in 2000, with competitive services becoming more important after 2001.
From Psion Dacom's point of view, the problem runs deeper than which standard users are most likely to plump for. "You need to understand the technological background," said Manda. "These people have always focused on delivering video, and their expertise in data requires a hefty investment.
They are well aware of their requirement for knowledge and they are addressing it, but the gap is there." This gap exists not only for product development but, crucially, for support as well.
The latter point is an issue with the sales channel through which the goods get sold when they emerge in Britain towards the end of the year.
From 3Com they will be branded US Robotics like any other modem and will go through mail order, High Street and superstores.
This sounds like the classic consumer market, although Valiant defended the company's policy: "We also sell hubs, LAN kit and other networking equipment through those channels, although it's true that cable modems will have more to do with entertainment and edutainment than anything else at first."
The choice of sales channel will also influence the style of sale on the products, and if that sounds a little obscure then it may be worth concluding with a brief anecdote.
As part of the research for this feature, PC Week called a local cable company to see just how well-briefed it is on the modems designed for its service that it will be selling by the end of the year. The company will remain nameless to protect the guilty.
"Hello," we said, "we'd like to talk about cable modems for the Internet."
"Oh yes," came the reply. "You can connect any modems to our cables."
"No," we explained, "we mean cable modems."
"Yes, you can connect any modems to our cables."
It isn't going to help much, is it?
CABLE MODEM TECHNOLOGY
It is important to understand the difference between cable modem technology and any other sort before considering any sort of purchase connected with it.
The background is from cable companies which have been set up to provide broadcast entertainment, not telephone companies who are used to the on-off nature of calls being started and stopped.
The cable itself is different from the twisted pair material already on site in most homes; it is coaxial cable and can handle more data than the existing infrastructure. A cable modem can handle multi-megabit speed, there is no call set-up, and crucially, the bandwidth to which they have access is shared. This means that the more people that log on, the slower the network becomes. Given its sheer speed, this is not much of an issue for the moment even when it diminishes, but as the rival technologies become faster it will become more important.
To hook a cable modem to a PC using existing technology you need a 10BaseT Ethernet connection that can handle up to 10Mbps speed.
The upstream and downstream channels use different modulation schemes and maximise in favour of downstream, which reflects the nature of the expected audience initially - the home user wants to look at the Internet rather than add to it for the moment.
One of the major problems being faced by people peddling cable modems is that ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line), is threatening to leapfrog the not-yet-a-standard in terms of technology and market penetration.
Its main advantage is that it has a standard already, in addition to which it will work over ready-established and installed twisted pair copper wiring. The Universal ADSL Working Group, including Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth, GTE, SBC Communications, Sprint and US West, and said it had agreed a standard earlier this year.
ADSL represents a step forward in that its signal is divided into two, along similar lines to ISDN. This requires a device to split the two sorts of signals and keep them running concurrently, and in this way it keeps a connection to the Internet going more or less constantly. A refinement of this is that the width of the required pipe can fall to around one megabit per second instead of seven or eight, which means the splitting device is not always necessary.
Industry commentators have drawn links between bandwidth problems experienced by many companies on the Internet and the notion of allowing customers to stay online the whole time. It will also prove problematic for telecommunications companies when Internet telephony starts to take off; if an Internet call to a long-distance location can be done for a local call charge plus a flat rate ISP charge, why bother paying extra to dial direct?
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