CeePrompt! Computer Connection

New modems offer easy upgrade

by Cathi Schuler


It wasn't very long ago that the term "high-speed modem" meant a 28.8 Kbps modem capable of transmitting information over Plain Old Telephone Services (POTS). This communications device was considered by many to be the end of the line for analog modems, with digital devices, or ISDN, being the next upgrade alternative.

But now it's apparent that the 28.8 Kbps modem is not the last stop on the analog line. The speed barrier for these devices continues to be shattered, bringing good news for the average consumer and justifiable concern to the emerging ISDN market.

A new, 33.6 Kbps modem has emerged, ousting the 28.8 Kbps modem as the standard bill of fare. Additionally, Rockwell Semiconductor Systems, modem-chip manufacturer, has joined forces with Motorola, Microcom and others to develop a 56.6 Kbps modem that will be available by mid-1997. Why the need for speed? Quite simply: graphics, multimedia and the World Wide Web.

No longer are we satisfied with the mere delivery of Internet information in a flat, text-based format. We hunger for vibrant images, cool sounds, eye-catching video clips and awesome animations to supplement the message. Such information packets are huge compared with text and have large bandwidth requirements for speedy transmission throughout the Internet.

Think of bandwidth as you would any other traffic venue. An old 2,400 bps modem, for example, is the equivalent of a back-country dirt road, whereas a 28.8 modem is more like a modern highway. Given the same destination, you're going to get there faster on the highway than you will on the dirt road.

Digital services such as ISDN, an acronym for Integrated Digital Services Network, and ADSL, or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, are in the future as the next great bandwidth frontier, or supermegafreeway, which will transport data at speeds up to 9 Mbps. This rate of data exchange would seem like a jump to light speed when compared with analog devices. Most Internet providers have been updating their equipment to digital formats, but hefty up-front costs and incremental usage charges for ISDN have discouraged the everyday consumer from upgrading to digital on the user end.

Modem manufacturers and chip makers, recognizing this trend, have seized the opportunity to build faster analog modems by taking advantage of the digital connections on the provider end. Voila! Faster modems for POTS!

This is good news for consumers in that upgrading your current modem configuration is going to be remarkably cheaper than going full digital. ISDN in California is averaging $375 for installation, $33 monthly, and per-minute charges that range from 3 to 8 cents. ISDN adapters (the equivalent of modems) range in price from $200 to $750, whereas an upgrade from an existing 28.8 modem to 33.6 may cost as little as $29 if the modem is upgradeable. A new U.S. Robotics 33.6 modem, for example, averages $150.

InReach Internet, a local Internet Service Provider, uses digital modems exclusively, according to President John Keagy, and recently tested the 33.6 upgrade on a number of modems. Since there were no ill effects reported, InReach plans to upgrade all its modems to 33.6, enabling InReach customers with 33.6 modems to connect at the higher speed. InReach will upgrade to 56 Kbps when the new standard emerges next year, and Keagy speculates that this will make ISDN even less attractive to consumers, though InReach will continue to support ISDN as well.

You can also expect the current pricing for modems to come down drastically, especially for those modems only capable of 28.8 transmission speeds. As a small caveat: The telecommunications industry has not yet ratified a final 33.6 standard, but this appears imminent. It's a good idea to verify, however, that any upgrade will be compatible with your on-line service or Internet Service Provider.

If ice melts faster than your Web pages load with that old 9600 or 14.4 modem, there's no time like the present to at least jump on the 28.8 highway or perhaps even venture onto the 33.6 expressway!

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