The World Wide Web has given us an insatiable appetite for faster communications. Alas, the solutions--cable modems, high-capacity phone lines, or satellite links--are still a ways off. But modem manufacturers have found a way to tweak one last burst of speed out of the phone system. Early next year, you'll be able to get a modem, probably for around $200 or less, that will let you receive data from the Internet at 56 kilobits per second (kbps), about twice today's top speed.
Modems work over phone lines designed for voice by converting data into tones of different pitches. For analog modems, the difficulty of distinguishing among various pitches holds the top speed to about 30 kbps. But most of the telephone system is based on a digital system, using the 1s and 0s of computer language to pack a lot more information into the same space. For most residential and small-business customers, the line uses the bulky analog signals only between your desk and the nearest phone company.
DOWNLOAD ZIP. The new modems capitalize on the design of the phone system. When sending data from your computer to a service provider, they function as conventional modems, limited to 33.6k at best. But because the conversion of digital signals to analog is much more efficient than the reverse process, they can receive information at 56k. And surfing the Web consists almost exclusively of downloading. So these new modems are competitive with all-digital ISDN service, but at much less cost and hassle. (For technical details, check out www.nb.rockwell.com or x2.usr.com/technology/wp.html.)
There are some pitfalls. The 56k modems require online service providers to install special equipment. Although many have pledged to upgrade, it's not clear how quickly it will happen. Furthermore, the new technology won't deliver faster speeds on all phone lines, and it may be hard to find out whether or not it will work on your system. In particular, the high-speed modems may not work with the PBX switches in many offices. The 56k units will function as normal analog modems at lower speeds.
The biggest roadblock to progress, however, is a familiar one. The industry has developed two incompatible approaches, one by US Robotics Corp., the other by Lucent Technologies and Rockwell International. US Robotics seems to be ahead in signing up both service providers and other manufacturers for its X2 system, but it likely will be months before an international committee selects a standard.
SOFTWARE LINK. Another development in modems, though, could minimize your risk of making the wrong choice. Many modems utilize a special kind of memory called "flash" RAM that allows users to update the built-in software. US Robotics, for example, promises that most of its modems that are sold today can be upgraded to X2 technology.
Motorola Inc. is taking this a step further by developing modems that are nothing more than an electrical link between a computer and the phone system. The work of converting data into signals that can be sent over telephone lines is performed by software running on your computer, rather than the modem's processor.
These "software modems," which will be available first as built-in equipment on new PCs early next year, offer some potential advantages: They should be significantly cheaper, and if you need to upgrade them or install a new standard, you can just load some new software.
Unfortunately, even 56k modems don't tap the full potential of the Web. But until multimegabit links come along, we'll have to settle for what we can get, and these new modems are nothing to sneer at.