Keep this little piece of information in mind as you read on: Despite lots of high-speed alternatives, most people still connect to the Internet using either a 14.4 or a 28.8 modem.
That's why a decision earlier this year by a U.N. organization, the International Telecommunications Union, was largely ignored outside of the specialized computer media.
The group, based in Geneva, issued a ruling in February on a new standard for 56 kilobits-per-second (usually shortened to 56K) modems.
In the last 18 months, two separate standards for the 56K modems hit the market -- one called X2 developed by U.S. Robotics, which merged with 3Com Corp. in 1997, and another called 56Flex co-authored by Lucent Technologies and Rockwell.
Neither standard was compatible with the other, meaning modems with different standards couldn't communicate with each other. Internet service providers also had to either choose one or the other standard, or configure their systems to handle both.
The new standard, called V.90, should help people who already own a 56K modem, and should make modem shopping a little less problematic for those considering an upgrade.
Here are some things to consider:
--Ask your ISP when it plans to adopt the new V.90 standard. It's important that you don't upgrade your 56K modem before your ISP has made appropriate changes on its end. From the end-user's standpoint, an upgrade will mean downloading files from your modem manufacturer's Web site. Owners of slower modems, such as 33.6K or 28.8K don't have to do anything.
Depending on your ISP, and the type of 56K modem you now have, downloading these files before your ISP is ready may cause problems. There's a chance your modem won't work at all.
--Once you determine what and when your ISP is making the switch, it's also important to find out who manufactured your modem, and, assuming it is a 56K, what standard the modem uses. The manufacturer information should have been included with the other documentation that you received with your computer. This is also one reason why you should always buy a modem from a major manufacturer, as they will (or should) offer better support than the budget, knock-off brands.
--Remember that even with a 56K modem, you'll still only get speeds up to 53K, and this is under the best of circumstances. Part of the reason for this is that existing analog telephone lines weren't really designed to handle data traffic and even the 28.8 modems tax the upper limits of existing analog telephone lines.
--If you are considering an upgrade to a faster modem, you should also consider adding a line-noise filter, which improves the speed at which World Wide Web pages load onto your screen, and also improves audio reception, using software such as RealAudio.
Basic line-noise filters, some of which also double as surge protectors for your modem, start at about $55. In a previous article, I reviewed a line guard manufactured by Australian Protective Products, which is based in Denton, Texas. I immediately noticed a difference in both the loading of Web pages and in receiving RealAudio broadcasts over the Net. Web pages loaded more smoothly and my audio transmissions suffered fewer buffering interruptions.
If you are frustrated with the snail-like speed at which Web pages load onto your machine, or are tiring of choppy Net-based video broadcasts, you should consider upgrading to a faster modem and installing a line-noise filter. Simply increasing the speed of your modem may not guarantee increased Net performance.
For the record, a 56K modem (under ideal conditions) takes about 25 minutes to download 10 megabytes of data, which is a huge amount of material equal to about seven King James Bibles.
A 28.8 modem would take about 49 minutes to download the same amount, and a 14.4 would take about 97 minutes.
These comparisons aren't really helpful to regular users, many of whom have never downloaded the equivalent of one King James Bible.
There are several Web sites that contain good information about the new 56K standard. One of the best at www.v90.com includes updated information, in a standard, question-and-answer format. You also can check at your ISP's Web site, and the Web site of your modem's manufacturer.
Another good reference site is maintained by the International Telecommunications Union at www.itu.org that also includes news about other telecommunications issues. The site is available in English, French and Spanish and there is also a helpful link to all other official U.N. Web sites.
Banner ads pay for this site, but from the several times I've used this, the banners are for family-friendly sites. I could easily see families using this site as their browser's default home page.