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January 4, 1998

Industry responds to
confusion over 56K modems

By Timothy C. Barmann

There is no doubt there was a sigh of relief when a consensus was reached in an Orlando, Fla., conference room last month.

It was a gathering of the top modem makers, who reached a long-awaited agreement on how to make their latest modems compatible with each other.

Modems are the devices that let computers talk to each other over telephone lines. About a year ago, new "56K" modems were introduced, which were supposed to nearly double the speed of the standard 28.8-Kbps modem for users connecting to the Internet.

Modem speed is of vital importance to anyone who surfs the World Wide Web because, as frequent users know, most of the time is spent waiting for pages and graphics to be delivered to your computer.

But the new 56K modems were met with a rash of criticism for two reasons. One, they didn't deliver as promised. The fastest these modems really delivered information was 53,000 Kbps, the companies acknowledge in fine print. And in reality, many people have never been able to get the modems to operate at that speed because of the quality of their telephone lines. In sending information, they are limited to 33.6 Kbps.

Secondly, consumers were confused about which modem to buy because modem makers used two different, incompatible technologies to build them.

One camp supported the "X2" technology made by 3Com, and the other backed K56Flex, by Rockwell Semiconductor and Lucent Technologies. That made buying a new modem a chore. Suddenly consumers had to wade through the jargon and the marketing hype to figure out which of the two technologies to buy. It meant asking which of the two technologies their Internet service provider supported.

Finally, the modem makers have come to their senses, dropped their differences and agreed on a new standard for 56K modems, which combines features of both technologies. The agreement came at December's committee meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, the body that oversees the setting of such standards.

A draft of the standard is expected to be endorsed at an ITU meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, that runs Jan. 26 to Feb. 6, according to Lucent. Final ratification is not expected until September 1998, but modem makers say they will ship software upgrades to bring current modems into compatibility with the new standard shortly after the Switzerland meeting.

The agreement couldn't have come any sooner for modem manufacturers, who had trouble selling the new modems last year. Less than 30 percent of the modems sold in 1997 were the new 56Ks, according to Dataquest, a market research company in San Jose, Calif.

But even with the new standard, the problems associated with 56K modems won't go away. The modem industry will always suffer from the fact that they misnamed their product, since it doesn't operate at 56K.

Locally, many users concur that the speeds their modems have achieved are more in the 30-to-40 Kbps range. The speed is limited by the quality of the phone line you are using, as well as other factors.

Some users have said that spending the extra $50 or so to get a 56K modem was worth it, while many say they are not getting the extra speed they thought they were paying for.

"The modem is perceptibly faster," said Owen Hartnett, of Tiverton. "I can see that I am getting much better throughput with my connections, even those that connect only at 33.6 Kbps. The connections are also more solid than with a straight 33.6 modem, with less hangups."

Michael Lehnertz, network manager for T. Sardelli & Sons, of Providence, says he uses a 56K modem at work, where he says he regularly connects at about 48 Kbps. From home, "I am lucky to connect at that speed. [It's] usually a lot lower," he said.

Still, he said it was worth the $150 or so he paid for each of the modems. "Some of the stuff I download is huge," he said. "What used to take me hours now takes me a lot less time and saves money."

However, Arthur E. Burton, of East Providence, said the $180 he spent on his modem a year ago was "not worth it."

He said he can connect at 28 Kpbs at best, but most of the time he is connecting only at 24 Kpbs. But he blames his Internet provider and says he is shopping around for a better one.

Donald Mac Phee II, of Warwick, says he is going to hold off on buying a 56K modem.

"I for one refuse to pay for a $200-modem upgrade that doesn't offer me a substantial increase," he said. "I can suffer along on my 33.6 access until the next generation of non-modems come along."

Harnett was referring to the "Digital Subscriber Line" technology that some Internet providers are now offering, which converts a standard phone line into a high-speed data pipe. He said he has ordered such a service from a local Internet provider, at a cost of $80 a month.

Another option just around the corner for some Rhode Islanders is the high-speed Internet access service to be offered by Cox Communications. Cox says it will launch the service in parts of the state next month. The cost hasn't been set yet, but in Connecticut, it's about $45 a month for unlimited access.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.