Will DSL modems go soft?

Motorola and PC-Tel, two of the largest vendors of software-based V.90 modem chip sets, are each preparing software-based DSL support using cheap riser-card attachments to the motherboard. The vendors say the software-upgradable modems will cost less, be easier to install, and be backward-compatible to existing V.90 modem technology.

A few challenges remain, including keeping the cost low enough to offer a price advantage and building a retail market.

Motorola demonstrated its SoftDSL technology at last week's SuperComm trade show. It is testing the technology with its central office DSL equipment and expects to enter production in the fourth quarter, says Tim Kennedy, business development director of the Motorola software product division. PC vendors may ship products in the first quarter of 2001.

The SoftDSL design will knock 20 to 30 per cent off modem manufacturing costs, Kennedy says. "This will enable PC vendors to offer DSL in mid- and low-range PCs," he says.

SoftDSL supports the G.Lite standard connection speed of 1.5 megabits per second, consuming 120 to 140 MHz of processing power, even if the actual connection speed is lower. The minimum configuration will be around 550 MHz, Kennedy says.

"We may need 2-GHz PCs to do full-rate [up to 7 mbps Asymmetric] DSL, but that's coming," he says. In the meantime, he says, only about 20 percent of today's DSL customers can get faster than 1.5 mbps.

Vendors still need to overcome skepticism about the technology. DSL's prodigious processing requirements are between 20 and 100 times higher than those of V.90 modems, and "slow" 550- to 700-MHz computers may not be able to handle much multitasking while online.

PCTel met with skepticism when it showed an all-software DSL solution to potential vendors. Consequently, its initial soft DSL offering, a G.lite-compatible product called LightSpeed, is a hybrid, says Shawn Owens, a PCTel spokesperson.

Even the hybrid is less expensive to manufacture, Owens says. Designed for up to 1.5-mbps speeds using 600-MHz and faster PCs, PCTel expects to ship LightSpeed products by the first quarter of 2001. PCTel is also developing an all-software version that supports full-rate ASDL and requires a 1-GHz PC.

But some in the industry question the actual cost savings, especially when you throw in the cost of the additional processing power. "Soft modem technology is at best unproven, and costs between 150 and 200 MHz of processor - that's a big hit for $5 to $10 maximum savings in manufacturing," says Dave Burstein, editor of DSL Prime, an industry newsletter.

Both vendors stress that cost is only part of the appeal of software-based DSL. With DSL built in, DSL providers can - theoretically - avoid dispatching technicians for installation or repair. You'll simply download the software from the DSL provider.

The problem is that DSL isn't sold bundled, and may not be for some time, says Ernie Rapieri, senior market analyst at VisionQuest 2000. While Rapieri believes the products are technologically sound, "practicality is the biggest hurdle for soft DSL," he says. "Until the DSL market matures in two or three years, you won't see a lot of bundling or retail."

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