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April 13, 1997

Some Internet providers
may not support 56K modems

By Timothy C. Barmann

Last month, this column focused on Cox Communications' effort to bring high speed Internet access to Rhode Island. This week, we talk about new modems that claim to cut in half download times from the Internet.

It wasn't that long ago that computer experts told us that we had reached the speed barrier with the 28.8 kbps modems that are standard today. The bottleneck, we were told, was the old-fashioned analog telephone line coming into our homes.

Now, some manufacturers are selling new modems that run at nearly 56 kpbs, almost twice the speed of the 28.8s.

The new modems take advantage of the fact that people are using them primarily to dial into the Internet. To make these modems faster, Internet service providers must have a digital connection to the telephone network.

These modems, however, don't deliver as advertised. FCC regulations limit how strong a signal can be piped through telephone wires, which means the manufacturers have to slow the modems to a maximum of 53,000 kbps.

But the modems don't appear to work even at that speed.

"Exclusive tests give a thumbs down to the first 56k modems," says the headline of a March 14 article in Windows Sources magazine. The magazine was able to achieve downloads of about 44.8 kbps after hundreds of downloads, it said.

The modems are faster only in one direction -- from the Internet to your PC. In the other direction, the speed is limited to 28.8 kbps. That works fine for Web browsing, when you typically transmit only tiny amounts of data to request pages, but it won't help at all for multimedia applications such as desktop videoconferencing.

Another problem with the new modems is that there is no set standard yet. In other words, there's no guarantee that the 56k modem you buy will work at the higher speed with your current Internet provider. You'll have to check with them to make sure the brand you want is compatible.

Rhode Island-based Internet providers are split over whether to support 56k modems.

"Log On America will support every technology commercially available," said David Paolo, president of the Providence-based Internet access company. "It does not make sense not to offer a particular service, leaving the customers without choice."

Likewise, Edgenet Internet Services of Westerly is actively promoting the modems and says it will support those based on the "K56flex" design, but it will not support the U.S. Robotics X2 technology.

Edgenet hopes to have the new modems in place by mid-May in Providence and late-May in Newport, said Jeff Thompson, Edgenet vice president.

Big Dog Online of Providence said it will "absolutely" support 56k modems.

But others are more cautious.

"It I were you, I would offer a strong warning to consumers regarding the hype surrounding 56K modems," said John Sulima, owner of RIconneCT of Westerly.

However, Sulima said the company probably will support the modems in three or four months. Which brand it will support is still undecided, he said.

"This would seem to represent an enormous technical support headache filled only with headaches and dissatisfied customers," said John O'Donnell, of bbsnet Worldwide, based in Portsmouth.

"We do not recommend the purchase of a 56k modem at this time," said Joe Hartley of brainiac services of Hope Valley. "Especially since upgrading any of the currently available modems to the standard that will eventually be decided may involve additional costs."

One of the largest Internet providers in the state, InteleCom Data Systems, appears to be leaning against supporting the modems.

"It's been our experience that there are many lousy phone lines in R.I., and they are unlikely to ever be able to support X2," says a note posted for its customers on its Web site.

The company its not ruling them out, but it appears to be placing its bets on another technology called DSL -- or Digital Subscriber Line -- that makes 56k modems pale in speed comparisons. (In two weeks, I'll talk more about DSL.)

Computer calendar

Tuesday-- Eric Robichaud, chief executive officer of Woonsocket-based Rhode Island Soft Systems (http://www.risoftsystems.com) will explain multimedia capabilities at the PC Users Group meeting at 7 p.m. in the East Conference Room of the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick campus. He will also discuss the Shareware Industry Conference (http://www.sic.org) coming to Warwick this June. Cost is free.

General question and answer session begins at 6:30 p.m. For more information, contact Louis Stein at 739-2810, send e-mail to louisstein@aol.com or see the group's Web site at http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line 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.