DSL receives shot in the arm

A string of recent high-profile DSL failures, including NorthPoint Communications Group's bankruptcy, have many observers questioning the long-term health of the high-bandwidth, copper-based service. But a new variant of the core technology -- SHDSL (Symmetric High-bit-rate DSL) -- could revive interest in DSL, especially for businesses.

SHDSL promises data rates of 2.3Mbps via a single copper-pair cable, as opposed to the 1.5Mbps speeds of conventional DSL lines. Moreover, the SHDSL standard can allegedly reach distances 30 percent farther than regular DSL, and it supports repeaters, so latency for high-bandwidth applications, such as voice and streaming media technologies, is expected to be very low.

The standard was approved by the International Telecommunication Union in early February.

Although SHDSL is not expected to be rolled out in the United States until later this year or next year, vendors are already gathering around the standard. At the recent DSLCon trade show in Denver, Lucent Technologies Inc. announced SHDSL enhancements to its Stinger line of DSL concentrators. Lucent representatives claimed that the upgrades will provide higher performance, better power consumption, and improved spectral compatibility as compared to existing symmetric DSL technologies.

Lucent's SHDSL play will be aimed primarily at enterprises that want to extend broadband to telecommuters and deploy VODSL (voice over DSL) technologies. The upgrade is expected to cost less than US$250 per port.

Smaller companies are getting in on the action, too. In June, Efficient Networks, an equipment manufacturer, will roll out its 5950 SHDSL Business Gateway, a customer-premises device aimed at small to midsize businesses and branch offices.

In addition to supporting the SHDSL standard (with a maximum distance of 20,000 feet), the 5950 Gateway will come with an auto-sensing eight-port 10/100 Ethernet interface, a user-friendly GUI, and a built-in firewall. The $599 device will support TCP/IP and static routing. A wire-speed VPN will be optional.

Many analysts predict that SHDSL will enable ISPs to deliver more stringent SLAs (service-level agreements) to subscribers, which could be especially attractive to businesses. Another key to enterprise adoption could be SHDSL's low implementation costs; like standard DSL, SHDSL can be delivered over an existing copper-wire infrastructure.

"[SHDSL] will become the dominant choice for DSL in businesses," predicted Jon Cordova, an analyst at Infonetics Research.

"The providers are looking for different ways of making money in the DSL space besides just providing connectivity,"Cordova said.

Broadband bill brouhaha

While hardware makers hustle to make DSL more appealing technologically, lawmakers last week sought to make broadband more generally available through legislation designed to spur the market.

Representatives W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced the controversial Internet Freedom and Broadband Deployment Act of 2001.

Favorable to regional Bell companies, the bill would remove the authority of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and state entities to regulate data services.

In a potentially deadly blow to emerging telecom and DSL companies, the bill would also limit the ability of the FCC to force regional Bells to provide unbundled access to networks.

"Broadband is a nascent market that does not need regulation," said Tauzin, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in a hearing last week on the bill.

But Baby Bell competitors expressed strong opposition. Even before the bill was introduced, 12 industry groups representing emerging telecoms, IT services companies, and Fortune 500 users lashed out at the measure.

"The Bells have attempted to build a brick wall around their markets so no competitors can get in. The Tauzin-Dingell bill is another brick in that wall," said Steve Ricchetti, co-chairman of Voices for Choices, a coalition of trade groups.

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