My first modem operated at 300 bits per second, the equivalent of about 450 words a minute. A few years later I quadrupled that when Hayes introduced its 1200-bps modem. Words scrolled by faster than I could read them--I was in data heaven.
Today, most PC modems operate at least 24 times faster, at 28.8 kilobits per second or 33.6 Kbps. Yet users complain about slow Internet connections. That's because words are no longer the only currency that flows across our screens: Pictures and other graphics are increasingly prevalent on the Net and other computer networks, and they take up a lot more bandwidth.
There is now a partial cure, but also some gotchas.
U.S. Robotics has begun shipping modems that can download data at up to 56 Kbps, theoretically twice the speed of today's 28.8 modems. It does this by doubling the speed of incoming data. You still send data at 28.8, but information flows from the Internet to your PC at the higher speed.
This isn't as bad as it may seem, because most of us typically upload fairly short messages. But we often download large data files or Web pages that are packed with graphics. So the new modem should, in theory, nearly double the total throughput, or the rate at which data are transferred.
To take advantage of the modem's higher speed, you and your service provider must be equipped with compatible modems. There lies the first gotcha. Currently only a handful of service providers support the so-called X2 technology, though U.S. Robotics claims that more are coming soon.
America Online offers 56-Kbps access only in Washington, Chicago, New York and Skokie, Ill., and via a toll-free number that carries a $6-an-hour surcharge. Prodigy Internet will soon offer the service in Los Angeles, Boston, Dallas, Atlanta and White Plains, N.Y., and plans to add other cities.
But the vast majority of their subscribers will not be within local calling range of an X2 number. A listing of the other providers and their areas of service can be found by clicking the "Connect Now" icon at http://www.usr.com
Even if you do subscribe to a compatible provider, you still won't get the full 56 Kbps. An old FCC rule, according to U.S. Robotics, prohibits modems from operating at greater than 53 Kbps over standard phone lines. That rule, my sources say, is being reconsidered.
But there is a higher law that even the government can't repeal. Your actual connection speed is based on the quality of your phone line. All modems are designed to throttle down to compensate for any noise or interference. I tested the $219 U.S. Robotics Sportster on several lines and generally got between 41.3 Kbps and 46.6 Kbps.
Standard 28.8-Kbps modems suffer similar degradation, so compared with the 26 Kbps I typically get from my standard modem, the X2 model ran about 75% faster. That's good, but not twice as good.
The speed at which you can surf the Web also depends on network traffic. A fast modem on a sluggish network is about as impressive as a fast car on a crowded freeway.
In addition to the performance limitation, there is another potential gotcha. The modem is using a proprietary connection scheme that hasn't been approved by any U.S. or international standards committee. What's more, Rockwell Semiconductor Systems (http://www.nb.rockwell.com), which provides chips used by a majority of modem vendors, has proposed a competing standard called "K56flex."
Both Rockwell and U.S. Robotics have submitted their technologies to North American and international standards committees, but neither committee has taken action.
Representatives from U.S. Robotics and Rockwell Semiconductor told me they don't expect these committees to take sides by endorsing either firms' standards. However, both firms say their modems will probably be software-upgradable to whatever standard emerges.
In the meantime, U.S. Robotics, Cardinal Technologies and other modem makers are already shipping X2 modems, while Hayes and other vendors are poised to release modems based on Rockwell's K56flex standard. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to obtain a K56flex for testing--that won't be possible until modem makers that use Rockwell chips make them available.
If you're thinking about buying either type of modem, the key is to find a service provider with local access that supports whatever modem you get. If you can find a provider that offers service in your area that supports that modem, you're in good shape, at least until the final standards are approved.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org