56-kilobit/sec modems can't transmit at rates that support hefty price

I got hold of two: the same brand that my Internet provider uses and another brand that
I tested with a distant online service via a toll-free connection. My comments are for
every user who ever fell asleep in front of a computer waiting for a file to download.

For more than a year we've heard that this new modem technology could double the
performance of 28.8-kilobit/sec modems over regular phone lines. It sounded
terrific-faster downloads without the hassle or expense of Integrated Services Digital
Network connections. But the thrill faded when we got down to the small print.

It turned out that such speeds were possible only with a compatible 56-kilobit/sec
modem at the other end of the connection, and even then the performance enhancement was
one-way. You could download at 56 kilobits/sec but upload only at lower rates.

That isn't too big a negative for users who need faster downloads and seldom upload
anything except brief e-mail messages or navigation commands to get from one World Wide
Web site to another. But then it turned out that only a few telephone connections in the
United States are good enough to support the high-speed modems. Most users seldom even get
33.6-kilobit/sec performance over standard connections.

What's worse, the modem developers haven't agreed on a 56-kilobit/sec standard. It now
appears we will continue to have two competing, incompatible standards for the modems.

Both types will default to 33.6 kilobits/sec or less as line conditions demand, but
that still leaves an unwary user paying for something that phone lines and service
providers can't deliver.

The only way for me to feel certain of the true speed was to test under real-life
conditions. I tested one of each type, and in neither case did I see data transfer at
full-rated speed except for periods so brief that I almost missed them. My average
download times were unimpressive-about equal to those with a much less expensive
28.8-kilobit/sec modem.

In view of the standards battle, higher prices and mediocre performance, I don't advise
spending the money to upgrade.

John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.

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