In the case of high-speed modems, it's buyer beware

Sun, 11/30/1997 - 7:00pm
Roger Brown

Of course, interoperability between modem vendors is the key question. When the MCNS consortium (consisting of cable MSOs TCI, Time Warner, Comcast and Cox) first began drafting a standards document, it was with interoperability in mind. The intent was to eventually make modems available at retail and to make sure that no matter where the subscriber lives, any vendor's device would work in any customer's house.

Interoperability tests undertaken at Cable Television Laboratories have shown that the concept is viable, but to date, it's a stretch to say that any two vendors' equipment will live in harmony together. But that hasn't stopped the marketing machine. Some of the vendors are already jumping the gun, issuing press releases touting their latest products as "MCNS compliant."

The fact is, no one is MCNS compliant. Yet.

The dirty little truth about standards documents is that they can be interpreted in different ways. Arcane technical details and nuances have to be similarly interpreted by all players before disparate products can effectively work together. Those CableLabs interoperability tests are designed to work out those interpretive differences to ensure that all players are working off the same page. But there is still work to be done.

Then, after the initial process is finished, there will still be a need for testing to ensure that one vendor's new feature doesn't gum up the works. At some point further into the future, the MCNS "certification" process is given to a third party, much like what Underwriter's Laboratories does for electrical components.

On the other hand, pity the vendors. Several, including some who have incredible retail influence, are zealously developing modems designed for the MCNS environment. They want to get the message out that these new products are at least intended to be compliant with the MCNS spec. But saying they're "MCNS compliant" isn't technically correct, because end-to-end interoperability hasn't been demonstrated.

Perhaps some acceptable nomenclature ought to be developed for vendors who want cable MSOs to know they're planning to be MCNS players. In the meantime, as you're shopping for cable modems, it's buyer beware. If someone says they're "MCNS compliant," ask them this: "Who do you interoperate with?" That's the acid test.

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