Delay purchase decision on superfast modem

until industry agrees on international standard Apr 8 1997

I suspect that everyone who accesses the Internet's World Wide Web using a so-called dial-up connection -- in other words, a modem and a phone line -- will agree that the connection is too slow. It simply takes too long before the text and pictures on a typical Web page appear on the computer screen.

And as Web sites add advertising, sound, video and cuter-than-words-can-describe animated special effects, it just takes longer and longer.

Sure, there are faster alternatives, but none of them seem ready for the mass market just yet. ISDN lines, from the phone company, are relatively pricey, complex and only a couple of times faster than standard modem access. Cable TV modem lines -- what Rogers is calling "The Wave" -- are faster, but again pricey and only available in a couple of Vancouver neighbourhoods (and do you have a cable outlet at work in any case?). Next-generation ADSL, from the phone company, simply isn't here yet. And science-fiction-like satellite links require the purchase of a $1,000 antenna.

When users made the big switch from 14.4- to 28.8-kilobyte-per-second modems a couple of years ago, the suggestion was that this would be the end of the line for traditional modem technology -- Plain Old Telephone Service simply couldn't handle speeds that were any faster. But like many other doom and gloom predictions, this has not quite been the case. Almost immediately -- or right after I upgraded, anyway -- the standard was pushed to 33.6 kbs. The jump wasn't big enough to make me want to trade up, but it was proof that the end of the line for dial-up connections had not yet been reached.

And this winter, modem manufacturers were boldly proclaiming another 100-per-cent speed boost to double the 28.8 standard, promising to bring low-cost plain old phone line modems close to the performance of the much more exotic ISDN. When the ads started, the hardware wasn't even available. Some manufacturers, such as U.S.Robotics, suggested that if you bought their standard modems now they'd be easily and freely upgradable when the new standard arrived.

The new hardware is now in the stores at reasonably attractive prices of under $400 or so. But before you put on your coat and run out to get one, there's a catch. Or two....

First, there's no single standard for these new, high-speed connections.

Well, actually, there are two standards. One is from U.S.Robotics, which sells more modems than any other company. They've just started to get their new X2 modems into stores, and have licensed their technology to Cardinal and Logicode. The other standard, calling itself the Open 56K Forum, promises to ship hardware "any day now." This coalition is made up of just about everybody else -- with a core of Rockwell Systems (the company that produced SabreJet fighter planes, now coping with post-Cold War times) and Lucent Technologies. Between them, they make the chips that power nearly all the non-USR modems. Ironically, networking giant 3-Com, which recently merged with U.S.Robotics, is a member of the Open 56K coalition.

Secondly, modems built to one standard will only be able to achieve high speeds connecting to a modem built to the same standard. Eventually there will be an internationally agreed standard, but that's not likely before the end of the year. And when that happens, the people who bought pre-standard modems will have to modify their technology, hopefully by a software-only upgrade rather than having to send in the hardware to get a chip replaced.

Internet Service Providers are under pressure to commit to one standard or the other since each brings with it a customer base. iStar and Netcom, for example, have promised to adopt U.S.Robotics models, while CompuServe is said to be leaning towards the Rockwell standard. But even if you and your service provider use the same kind of modem, you're still not done. The high speeds apply for downloads only. Any information sent by you goes at a slower rate. That's probably not a big deal as most of us get much more from the Net than we send back.

But even at their best, the modems won't be quite as fast as advertised. Tests of the first X2 modems found them working at best at 44.8 kbs, and very susceptible to line noise. As well, in the U.S. at least, federal regulators are limiting top speeds by setting caps on the amount of power the modem can apply to the phone line. At best, the fastest connection allowed will be 53 kbs.

The result, for now, is a mess. Despite the television ads featuring Stephen Hawking, I can't recommend that you run out and buy into this technology, at least not until there's a single standard. If you really must buy now, make sure that you'll be using the same technology as your Internet Service Provider, and that whatever hardware you're getting is guaranteed to be upgradable for free when the eventual standard comes through.*

Search WWW Search

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan