Enacted by Congress last January, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is
designed, as President Clinton put it, "to stimulate investment, provide more
access to all citizens to the Information Superhighway, and strengthen and
improve universal service."
But while telecommunications companies are well aware of the problems of today's burgeoning industry, many companies are greeting the Act with cautious optimism.
The news for design engineers is that "each of these areas will demand some very new telecommunications technology," says Russ Johnsen, vice president and general manager of the communications division at Analog Devices, Norwood, MA. "There will be huge opportunities for the service providers and operators, but each will need a new piece of equipment to be put into the infrastructure by the OEMs."
Radical changes. To accelerate the cable telephony boom, cable modem technology will become the watchword. Some semiconductor companies are already providing ICs to power telecommunications equipment for the cable modem markets. "Cable companies would like to provide data communications services to their customers through the use of their coaxial cable network," says Debbie Salle, ADSL business development manager for Motorola's MOS Digital-Analog IC Division, Tempe, AZ.
With a few upgrades, such as the addition of bidirectional amplifiers, adding fiber to the node architecture, and installing a pair of cable modems, cable TV customers can receive data communications services for their PCs. Custom ICs that power the modem equipment, such as Motorola's new Cablecomm, are making this possibility a reality. Thus, semiconductor companies are helping major industry players get the most from their installed networks to avoid costly capital outlays for new cabling.
To compete with the cable companies, telephone companies need to offer higher-speed modems. While ISDN is one growing area for high-speed modems, many experts believe that it lacks the speed to compete with the cable modem. One technology gaining attention--Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL)--may offer a solution. Originally conceived as a video delivery method for telephone companies, it allows advanced communications services such as Internet access, video-on-demand, video conferencing, and telecommuting over traditional copper networks.
Basically, ADSL takes advantage of that part of the bandwidth not used for voice calls. It splits the 1-MHz bandwidth into three different information channels. These include a high-speed downstream channel, a medium-speed duplex--downstream and upstream--channel, and a traditional voice channel. The technology offers two major benefits: It provides high-bandwidth transmission, and it preserves the critical services needed for daily communications.
A big application area will be video delivery by Internet access. "You will see ADSL open up as an answer for high- bandwidth Internet access--up to 6 to 8 Mbit/second downstream," says Analog Devices' Johnsen. The company recently announced first- and second-generation ADSL products, and is looking forward to an overall infrastructure cost of about $500 per subscriber.
Comparing ADSL's speed to that of older modem technology boggles the mind. For example, downloading a 10- Mbyte video clip--the equivalent of a 4-minute movie--takes about 93 minutes with a 14.4-kbps modem, and about 46 minutes with a 28.8-kbps modem. Using ADSL technology, it requires about 10 seconds. A cable modem would need 10 to 20 seconds. Very-high rate-digital subscriber line (VDSL), another modem technology still about a generation away, requires approximately one second.
Though he expects long-term support for ADSL as a video delivery product, Johnsen cautions that it will take some time. "Telephone companies will need to develop an asynchronous- transfer-mode (ATM) infrastructure be-fore they can do video delivery."
Aimed squarely at the need for speed, Analog Devices' second generation ADSL product, the AD20msp910, offers a full-featured chip-set solution. The set consists of a DMT transceiver, a DSP host processor, a line driver, and control software. Other suppliers typically provide the transceiver or parts of the transceiver technology.
A golden touch? Motorola also considers ADSL high on its list of priorities. It recently initiated the ADSL Forum to educate and develop the market for ADSL, says Debbie Salle, who is also marketing chair of the ADSL Forum. At last summer's Supercomm Show in Washington, DC, the company introduced CopperGold, a Discrete Multi-Tone (DMT)-based ADSL transceiver that enables 600 times the data rate of a 14.4 analog modem, using existing copper phone lines.
During initialization, the transceiver can be configured through the host- processor interface as an adaptive-rate modem that can adjust the data rate to within 32 kbps of the maximum throughput the line can support. Upon line startup of the rate-adaptive DSL (RADSL) mode, the transceiver determines the line condition and transport capacity of each specific line. It then operates at the best data rate possible for each line.
Alternatively, the telecommunications provider can predetermine the rate. Data rates range from 64 kbps to 1.0 Mbps bidirectional, 32 kbps to 8 Mbps downstream. The advantage of DMT-based RADSL, according to the company, is that it is not optimized for only one loop, but dynamically optimizes to each loop for the greatest throughput available. Rate-adaptive capability was built into the DMT standard originally, and is now recognized as a key to the business case for ADSL deployment for Internet access and on-line services.
CopperGold is designed to provide consumers with enough bandwidth to send video over the phone lines--300 times faster than a 28.8-kbps modem. The transceiver comes in a single chip and uses about one third the power of today's systems. It's expected to be available in early 1997.
Technological expansion. Smaller communications companies as well as startups are coming out with products predicted to benefit from markets opened by the Act. Started in 1992, Open Development Corp., Norwood, MA, develops software solutions for telecommunications companies in the form of scalable, network-based service platforms and prepaid systems for wired and wireless systems.
Brad Bishop, vice president of marketing, expects a very brisk business in prepaid calling cards. The company's flagship product, called openMEDIA, is designed as a core foundation from which all applications can run and share platform resources. The architecture is designed around a UNIX processor that interfaces with the network and controls a centralized database, a switching fabric, and peripheral voice and FAX technologies.
CommQuest Technologies Inc., Enci-nitas, CA, has developed a proprietary silicon architecture called the Communications Applications Specific Processor (CASP), along with an associated VLSI design methodology. Combined with the company's own digital sampling techniques, this architecture focuses on a new approach to accelerate the development of highly integrated systems. The company is currently developing a number of products based on the CASP architecture. It also provides a set of tools to support design, evaluation, field verification, and production.
While the networking arena is expected to continue its 35% annual growth streak, companies are adding special services to their product lines to stay on top of the competition. Some plan to focus on specific networking problems such as speed and security. Founded in 1991, Atlanta-based Scitor International Telecommunications Services Inc. shares with SITA, a cooperative that serves over 600 members in the air transport industry, what is considered to be the world's largest telecommunications market. It provides voice and data services to over 70,000 user connections in 225 countries and territories. "We plan to bring to our current international managed data networks service what we refer to as managed Internet and Intranet services that concentrate on special levels of security for the corporate user and managed performance services," says William Bangert, general manager and vice president of Scitor. "For example, it can take all day to use the Internet, while this may be satisfactory to the consumer, it may not necessarily be satisfactory to the corporate user."
Spreading the expertise. Highly competitive global partnerships are also expected to grow among communications component makers and OEMs. One example is Advanced RISC Machines Ltd. (ARM), Cambridge, England, formed by Acorn Computers, England; Apple Computer, Cupertino, CA; and VLSI Technology, San Jose, CA. It designs and markets leading-edge microprocessors and peripherals aimed at the arena where the computing, communications, and consumer electronics technologies converge.
The technology ARM develops is licensed to semiconductor partner companies who focus on manufacturing, applications, and marketing. Partnering enables global adoption of the ARM architecture more rapidly than possible for a traditional semiconductor company. The architecture reportedly has a highly reliable design flow for rapid system development. Because ARM processor cores are very small--as few as 35k transistors for a basic ARM7 core--they are considered suitable for integration into larger ASICs.
Versatile telephones.Field Applications Engineer Oliver Gunasekara is preparing for milestone growth in cellular smart phones, where the next generation will have far more significant user interfaces. "Smart phones will be the same size as current phones, but offer extra features like diaries and address books," he says. "The phone will also offer two-way paging, e-mail and FAX." Due to the phone's extra data capabilities, service providers will be able to sell increasing amounts of air time. "The consumer no longer only uses the phone for voice communication, but to send and receive e-mail as well as get web information tailored for the smart phone and designed for a small screen," he adds.
A smart-phone user will consume more air time, and the product will cost more to manufacture than a traditional phone. "But if this increase is less than $50," points out Gunasekara, "then the service provider may discount a smart phone more than a traditional phone." The net result is that smart phones could sell for the same price as traditional phones, with the difference in cost being made up by the service providers.
Several smart phones already announced include the Motorola MAP, the Nokia Communicator 9000, the Matsushita Pinocchio, the Nortel Orbitor, the AT&T PocketNet, and the PCSI PAL. One major obstacle, however, restricts the technology in this country: a digital infrastructure does not yet exist. The challenge for U.S. networking manufacturers will be to get a digital cellular infrastructure up and running. "The first smart phones are already targeting Europe and Japan," observes Gunasekara. "Europe has GSM, Japan has PDC, but the U.S. remains a few years behind."
In an uncertain market--where it is still not yet clear which broadband and wireless services will be in most demand--one thing is becoming clear: the Telecommunications Act of 1996 is just beginning to shake things up. For now, the best advice is to move with caution, advises A.A. "Scoop" Sairanen, program director of the Information and Technology and Telecommunications Industry Association (TCA), San Francisco, CA. "Companies take a tremendous risk if they move too quickly into a market that they are not fully prepared to compete in. If they don't have the ability to meet the demands, people will get disillusioned with delays and problems and look elsewhere for the products or service."