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Tech 101

Modem Operandi

Dial-up? DSL? Cable? Your online speed depends on how you connect.

November 09, 2000|JEFF LEVY | jefflevykfi@hotmail.com

There are several ways to connect to the Internet, and you should have a working understanding of your options.

The vast majority of Internet users connect with a computer modem and a telephone line. A modem changes your computer's digital information into analog information--a process called modulating--so it can be sent over telephone lines to another modem. The receiving modem then changes the analog information back to a digital form--which is called demodulating--so the receiving computer can use the information. This process of modulation and demodulation gives rise to the term "modem."

With a modem or "dial up" connection, your computer establishes a phone connection with an Internet service provider, or ISP. The ISP connects your computer to a "gateway" that lets you operate on the Internet.

Modems today are rated in terms of connection speed. The most common modems are rated at a speed of 56 Kbps, or kilobits per second. In real-world terms, these 56 Kbps modems usually communicate with the Internet at somewhere between 43 Kbps and 48 Kbps.

These speeds are achieved with a full or "controller" modem. Several computer makers use a "win" modem, which is cheaper because it lacks certain components and relies on your computer to do the work normally done by the full modem. With a win modem you can expect Internet speeds of between 28 Kbps and 33 Kbps. Is there a noticeable difference between the two modems in terms of your connection? Yes. If you are purchasing a new computer or upgrading your modem, be sure to demand a full, controller modem.

The cost of modem Internet connections range from $21.95 per month for America Online to no cost at all on Juno and NetZero. The free connections rely on advertising dollars, which means ad banners displayed on your screen.

There are companies that discount your connection based on prepaid services. Companies such as RamPageUSA let you buy blocks of time in advance, so your monthly fee can be as low as $12.95 or $9.95 per month if you prepay for the whole year.

Modem connections suffer when rain soaks the ground and underground telephone wires get damp. Busy signals are also a fact of life with modem connections. Dropped connections also plague modem Internet users. Downloading files can take hours with these connections.

DSL, or digital subscriber lines, offer several advantages. Connection speeds can be up to 10 times faster. The DSL connection uses your phone line but leaves your phone available so you can use it while online.

Flashcom, EarthLink and even the phone companies offer DSL connections for $35 to $49.95 a month. You'll need a network interface card, or NIC, and a DSL modem. Downloading a large file that can take over two hours with a modem connection can be completed in two to three minutes with a DSL connection. The downside of DSL connections is that, like dial-up modems, they depend on phone lines. When the lines are down, your DSL connection is unavailable.

Cable Internet available through cable TV providers such as Adelphia, Time Warner and Cox Communications offer Internet connection speeds much faster than even DSL connections. The cost of cable Internet connections ranges from $39.95 to $49.95 a month.

The best deals are available when you subscribe to your cable company's cable TV plan as well as its cable Internet plan. You'll still need a network card and you'll also need a cable modem. Most cable companies will provide both the network card and the modem as part of your package.

The downside to cable modems is that as more homes in your neighborhood sign up for Internet service, your connection starts to slow down. Some cable companies, such as Adelphia, set a maximum number of users per neighborhood and when that maximum is reached, new hardware is added.

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Jeff Levy hosts the "On Computers" radio talk show from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on KFI-AM (640).

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