Turbocharging The Net

Three giants are teaming up on a standard to speed access

There's a secret fear stalking the halls of computer makers and other high-tech companies: Unless something happens to drastically speed up low-cost access to the Internet, millions of users who are tired of waiting for a new page to make its way across the World Wide Web will yawn, shut down their PCs, and take up a new pastime.

That thought is scary enough to persuade Intel, Microsoft, and Compaq Computer to back a massive move beyond the 56 kilobit-a-second speed limit of today's modems. The group is now negotiating with switchmakers Northern Telecom Ltd. and Lucent Technologies Inc. to gain support for a new approach to high-speed Internet access.

Key to the deliberations are two high-speed technologies developed by Northern Telecom and Rockwell International Corp. They eliminate the current need for special gear to split computer data from telephone calls using the same wire. While the group hopes for a mid-December deal, there has been no agreement on how to modify the big central office switches, according to people familiar with the talks. Northern and Lucent spokesmen declined comment.

There are powerful incentives for an agreement. Rockwell has new chips that let existing phone lines download Internet traffic at up to 1 megabit a second while sending at 256 kilobits a second. The company's chip customers could sell up to 500,000 of the new digital modems within 18 months and "several million beyond that," says Raouf Halim, vice-president at Rockwell Semiconductor Systems. The product would sell for around $200, perhaps halting advances into Net service by cable-TV companies, whose setups usually require a telephone modem, says Daniel Briere, president of consultants TeleChoice Inc.

There are reasons to be skeptical that the group can agree on a standard. Modem makers couldn't reach consensus on a single technology for 56-kilobit modems. And faster access will need support from both computer and switch makers. But if the group succeeds, it could cut by a year or more the arrival of simultaneous voice and Internet access over one phone line, say executives familiar with the talks. That's keeping the wires burning--at least among the tech companies.

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