Modems: Greased Lightning For P Cs

A running joke among Net surfers is that the World Wide Web should have been named the World Wide Wait. For it still takes most consumers far too long to move from one Web page to another, to watch graphics materialize on the screen, and to download audio and video files. Indeed, for many people, the modems that carry data across phone lines at speeds of 28.8 or 33.6 kilobits per second (KBPS) just don't cut it. That's why many heavy computer users are thrilled by the arrival of a new class of zippy 56K modems that promise to perform at roughly twice the transmission speeds of their predecessors.

The new 56K modems cost $159 to $219, about twice what you would pay for a 28.8, but are reasonably affordable nonetheless. Some companies offer trade-in deals. For example, provided they act by the end of June, consumers who swap in any old modem from any manufacturer--even a prehistoric 1,200-BPS model--can purchase a new 56K modem from Hayes Microcomputer Products for just $99. Trade in one of Hayes's old models, and the cost drops to $89.

ANOTHER DUEL. However, some cautious users may be reluctant to plunge into the market because of a standards battle reminiscent of the Beta-vs.-VHS struggle. Market leader U.S. Robotics is pushing a 56K technology called x2. Meanwhile, Lucent Technologies and Rockwell International, whose chips are used in modems sold by Hayes, Motorola, Xircom, and Zoom Telephonics, as well as in PCs from Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, are behind an alliance of companies known as the Open 56K Forum whose would-be standard is called K56flex. Technical issues complicate the debate, but the bottom line for ordinary users is simple: x2 modems cannot talk to K56flex modems. So if your Internet service provider (ISP) supports one standard and your modem conforms to the other, you're back to being a 33.6 slowpoke.

But standards shouldn't stop buyers from entering the fast lane, says Andy Bose, CEO of Access Media International, a New York consulting firm. That's because once the inevitable compromise is carved out, the two camps have agreed to provide consumers with free software upgrades to that standard. Even if a compromise takes time to emerge, ISPs will likely begin offering both kinds of connections to prevent customers from bolting. U.S. Robotics has lined up more than 600 ISPs for x2, including America Online, which now offers x2 service in a half-dozen trial cities. The Open 56K camp claims support from about the same number of ISPs, including AOL. Trials begin this summer.

Of course, there are efforts under way to zip folks along the I-way at an even more sizzling pace than these souped-up 56K units. Cable companies are rolling out superswift modems--they offer connections at speeds of 10 million megabits per second, or about 300 times faster than a 28.8 modem--in a handful of trial markets. But cable modems will remain beyond the reach of most consumers for at least a couple of years.

Then there's ISDN. Consumers can attain data speeds of up to 128 KBPS when they opt for ISDN (integrated service digital network) service. But ISDN requires a special telephone line, and installation can be a nightmare. You'll have to install connection gear that meshes with the type of service provided by your phone company. Moreover, ISDN can be costly. Your equipment and one-time setup fee will run a few hundred dollars, plus you'll be saddled with higher monthly phone rates.

SPEED LIMIT. For those who don't want the hassle or expense, "56K is the cheapest solution," says Bose. Access Media predicts that of the 15.7 million consumer modems shipped in 1997, only about 1.2 million will be 56K versions. By next year, the number should reach 4.4 million, and it will rise to nearly 17 million by 1999.

Unfortunately, there's a caveat that modem makers aren't talking about much. Higher speeds only kick in on traffic from the Net to your PC and not the other way around. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission regulates the top speed at 53.3 KBPS, and independent tests indicate that you are more likely to cruise along in the 40s. Noisy phone lines are the chief culprit. Then again, you probably didn't rev along at max speeds on your old modem, either. In any case, on the Internet, where faster is always better, every bit of improvement helps.

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