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Are dial-up networks endangered?

Network World Fusion

By Denise Pappalardo

(IDG) -- Some of the largest ISPs in the U.S. have no plans to upgrade their dial-up networks to support the latest modem standard, despite the fact that millions of users depend solely on dial access when on the road or working from home.

The International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) V.92 standard, which was ratified in November 2000, offers users three benefits: faster modem connections, faster upstream speeds and the ability to put a data connection on hold to answer a voice call, often called Internet call waiting.

Cable & Wireless, EarthLink and WorldCom's UUNET say they have no plans to upgrade. Sprint, AT&T and Genuity say they will eventually support the new standard and are in various stages of testing products. NaviPath of Andover, Mass., is the only ISP that has bitten the bullet and upgraded its network to support V.92.

"The biggest reason ISPs are not quickly upgrading their dial networks is that they want to save money," says Steven Harris, an analyst at market research firm IDC.

ISPs are under financial strain and have dramatically cut capital expenditures. For example, Genuity has reduced its budget by $5 billion over the next three years.

Some say the benefits of V.92 will not be worth the pain of a networkwide upgrade, according to Daryl Schoolar, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat. But this is a narrow-minded view, analysts say, especially when you consider that about 50 million U.S. households connect to the Internet via dial-up. INFOCENTER
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The majority of those users are consumers. IDC says 92 percent of the 25.2 million home offices in the U.S. access the Internet using a dial-up connection, and that number is not expected to decrease dramatically until 2004.

While it's true that the latest standard doesn't offer a huge bandwidth boost, some users have no choice but to use an analog modem, making such an upgrade their only avenue to improved performance.

Dial-up alternatives

Users may prefer DSL or cable-modem services because they are faster, but each service has its own set of drawbacks.

Neither service is available nationwide, so a network manager in charge of his company's teleworker program may have to negotiate with several ISPs to get service for all employees.

Moreover, cable-modem service providers such as Comcast, Cox Communications and AT&T Broadband's MediaOne prohibit customers from using their standard cable-modem services to access corporate networks such as VPNs.

Users are also losing confidence in DSL service providers as provisioning horror stories abound and companies such as NorthPoint Communications drop off the map.

Dial-up service is not the fastest way to access the Internet but is generally available everywhere and costs about $30 less per month than DSL and cable-modem service.

Embarcadero Systems, a container shipping company, is pushing its teleworkers to sign up for DSL or cable-modem service, but still depends on dial-up access when its executives travel. The company uses remote access service from iPass, which lets remote workers dial local numbers to access the Internet from 150 countries.

"When iPass supports V.92 in its [points of presence] we'll start upgrading" laptops, says John Montgomery, director of technical services at the San Francisco company.

The company would like to offer users better dial-up performance but is limited by what the ISPs in the iPass consortium support. UUNET and Cable & Wireless are among the 170 ISPs that make up iPass' network, so Embarcadero users may be waiting longer than expected for improved service.

ISPs that do not keep up with the latest analog standards will be playing catch-up later on, In-Stat's Schoolar says.

Users can buy V.92-capable modems from Zoom Telephonics, U.S. Robotics and Multi-Tech Systems, but cannot use the new capabilities unless their ISPs also support V.92. Dell will offer V.92 modems as a standard option for laptop and desktop PCs in the fall. Compaq is offering a V.92-upgradable modem with its machines, although the necessary Lucent software is as yet unavailable.

Users are only now becoming familiar with the capabilities that V.92 offers compared with V.90-compliant modems. Like V.90, the ITU's previous modem standard, V.92 supports downstream speeds up to 56K bit/sec. But that's where the similarities end.

V.90 modems support upstream speeds of 33.6K bit/sec, while V.92 modems support upstream speeds of 48K bit/sec. Initial modem negotiation with an ISP's access concentrator is expected to be 25 percent faster than with V.90 modems, and the Internet call-waiting feature is new.

NaviPath believes users want these new features, but Schoolar notes the ISP may have had an easier time upgrading than other providers. Because NaviPath only uses one vendor -- Lucent -- it was a smooth software upgrade, he says. "Some providers have heterogeneous networks that are cobbled together, making it more difficult for them to make changes to equipment," he adds.

EarthLink is in this same boat.

"We estimate this is a very expensive proposition," says Steve Dougherty, director of systems at the ISP.

"There is a chance we won't support it at all. We outsource about half of our modem support and the rest we manage in-house using Nortel, Lucent and 3Com gear. It's sort of messy for us," he says.

Wait-and-see mode

There doesn't appear to be a market driver for V.92, says Roger Florkowski, manager of network management systems at UUNET.

Cable & Wireless agrees.

"We're in a wait-and-see mode," says David Edwards, director of Internet dial services at Cable & Wireless. "We're just starting to see some [requests for proposal] from customers that ask questions about where we are in our plans to support V.92. But no one is including it as a requirement at this point."

While Cisco, Cable & Wireless' primary access concentrator vendor, is offering a V.92 upgrade, the service provider does not have any of this gear in-house.

"We're watching our pennies," Edwards says.

But other service providers such as AT&T, Sprint and Genuity see V.92 as an opportunity.

"We're excited about [V.92] and what it provides our customers. There has been a downturn in the broadband market, and it's not growing as expected," says Steven Piacentino, IP product management director at AT&T. "Dial will be around for many years, and we need to drive advances in this technology."

AT&T has been testing software from its primary dial platform vendor for three months and will likely start upgrading its network before year-end. Sprint also expects to begin upgrades this year. Genuity did not offer a time frame.

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