DSL consortium banks on tech advances

Despite the grim financials hanging over parts of the broadband landscape, the DSL Forum on Wednesday painted a positive picture of an industry poised to break through some of the key barriers that have held it back.

Since its high-profile inception, DSL has suffered because it is not available to all -- or even most -- residential phone customers. Service problems tied to the number of vendors it takes to equip a user with service has also hampered DSL.

But here at the SuperComm tradeshow, DSL Forum president Bill Rodey said the technology by 2004 would reach 70 percent of all U.S. households. Rodey cited analyst figures from International Data Corp. that predict there will be 64 million DSL users by that time.

Spurring DSL toward a path to hit those levels is new technology that lets subscribers who are beyond DSL's traditional reach -- more or less three miles from a phone company's central office -- have access to service.

The DSL Forum unveiled its 'DSL Anywhere' initiative, billed as tools for the industry to expand DSL's reach.

"This will allow service providers to qualify more lines for service, and not reject requests for qualification out of ignorance," said Tom Starr, DSL Forum vice chairman and senior member of the technical staff at SBC Technology Resources.

DSL Anywhere includes several methods prescribed for service providers offering DSL service.

Among those are improved loop qualification tools and overlay solutions that let providers add either multiplexer devices or repeaters and loop extenders to stretch DSL service to outlying addresses, Starr explained.

Another new method for jetting DSL qualification criteria beyond its current reach involves a new standard for symmetric DSL, which has the same upload and download speeds for uses such as LAN access and video conferencing.

Primarily for business users, this new symmetric DSL "flavor" is called SHDSL (Single-Pair High-Speed DSL). SHDSL has better reach to local loops and operates at several bit rates ranging from 192Kbps to 2.3Mbps.

Further, SHDSL does not interfere as much with other transmission signals such as cable and has a high degree of interoperability among DSL vendors, said Everett Brooks, chair of the Forum's SHDSL working chair group.

DSL Forum representatives then shifted to the troubles DSL has seen in terms of the ramp-up time it takes to install service. Central to those delays is the fact that it takes from two to four vendors to get a DSL user up and running.

However, DSL Forum recently has gotten significant industry consensus around methods for auto-configuration and information-sharing among vendors such as ISPs, competitive carriers, and local phone companies - all of which often must work in tandem to deliver service.

Through automatic configuration or dynamic provisioning, "users will be able to take a DSL modem and plug it in a phone jack and it will configure itself," said Bryan Way, senior director of product development at e-Site, in Tustin, Calif.

Finally, SBC's Starr stressed his company, a massive Bell operating company, is on track with its efforts to roll out widespread DSL service.

Starr said that SBC's DSL push, called "Project Pronto," is not on hold despite rumors to that effect. In fact that effort is being spurred by auto-provisioning and other DSL advances pushed by the DSL Forum, he said.

Analysts at Meta Group recently predicted that such advances will make sweeping differences in the industry.

"Carriers are finally figuring out how to make broadband profitable. For one thing, more than 80 percent of new installations are now done directly by the customer, without any site visit from telco technicians. This makes a huge difference," said Meta Group analyst David Willis in a recent written snapshot of the market.

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