New Modems Speed Onto the Infohighway

What will you use to connect to the Internet in 2000? An alphabet soup of technologies awaits you.

Maybe you'll have fancy electronics that turn your telephone line into a speedy infohighway on-ramp. Maybe you'll hook up through your cable-television line. Or by satellite. Surely by that time, you'll have gotten rid of that stodgy old modem. Right?

Wrong. Thanks to new technology, modems are about to get a new lease on life. Starting next month, companies will begin selling models that are twice as fast as today's popular 28.8 kilobit-per-second (kbps) models. According to industry experts, the new 56-kbps modems will be the Internet connection of choice by 2000.

"We believe there's a huge latent demand for this technology," says Joe Dunsmore, vice president of product management for U.S. Robotics. Jupiter Communications, a New York-based consulting firm, forecasts that two-thirds of on-line households will be using 56-kbps modems by 2000. Faster and more advanced technologies will take time, it adds.

Until recently, modems were thought to have nearly reached their practical limits. But manufacturers have found a new way of interpreting signals sent down a traditional telephone line. Today's modems decode information by measuring the properties of specially modified electromagnetic waves sent over the phone line, as traditional modems do. The new modems decode data by measuring changes in electrical voltage on the line. This turns out to be a far faster method of receiving data.

There are a few drawbacks. A small number of telephone lines don't allow those voltages to be measured accurately. Another minor drawback: the modems only achieve their peak speed when downloading information. When uploading data, they fall back to more conventional 28.8- or 33.6-kbps speeds.

The biggest challenge, however, is that one 56-kbps modem won't necessarily communicate with another. That's because no standards have been set. Instead, two camps with rival and non-interoperable technologies are getting ready to battle it out.

On one side is U.S. Robotics, a leading modem manufacturer that plans to start selling its version of the 56-kbps modems next month. It has snared the top on-line service companies and several Internet-service providers as well. On the other side is Rockwell International, which has attracted a much larger list of modem manufacturers. Each claims to have the upper hand. But Frank Manning, president of modemmaker Zoom Telephonics, is backing the Rockwell technology. "The smart money is on Rockwell's K56Plus," he says.

Usually, it makes sense for users to wait for a standard to be set before investing in a new technology. And since it's unlikely that either implementation will become the official standard without some modifications, that might mean waiting until late 1997 or sometime in 1998, when a standards-setting body of the International Telecommunication Union in Geneva reaches a consensus. But users may be able to jump the gun a little, if either U.S. Robotics or Rockwell becomes dominant in the marketplace.

U.S. Robotics is already selling 33.6-kbps modems that will be upgradable to 56-kbps speeds with merely a software upgrade. So it may be possible that in the near future, modemmakers will be able to sell 56-kbps modems that will require only a software upgrade to conform to the as-yet unwritten modem standard.

The new modems will be highly sought after by all but the most basic Internet users, who merely want electronic mail and don't care about the graphically rich World Wide Web. Heavy users of the Internet, who are willing to pay more for service, should consider ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network), which offers twice the speed of 56-kbps modems and is becoming widely available from local telephone companies.

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