Connect your business to the world by adding this peripheral to your computer system.
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This story appears in the February 1997 issue of . Subscribe »

Connect your business to the world by adding this peripheral to your computer system.

Why should you get a modem? In these days of the electronic village and the information superhighway, a more appropriate question may be: Why don't you have one already?

Modems are devices that allow your computer to communicate electronically over phone lines with other computers, networks or the Internet. Modems were originally conceived for remote access to mainframe networks. Users would dial in, and the modem would relay information from the main computer to the remote one. Information was relayed in a simple fashion, via lines of text on an otherwise blank screen.

Today's modems outperform their ancestors, in some cases with speeds up to 50 times faster. With modern software, modems can communicate with fax machines, act as an answering machine (recording messages on your hard drive), and even page you if the computer to which it is connected crashes. In addition, companies with a modem can now allow their clients to dial into their "bulletin board service" (BBS) to place orders, receive news about the company's products, or transfer a file to or from their computers (such as a product/pricing database).

This BBS is a program some companies use to enhance their customer service. But now, with the emergence of the Internet as a business tool, companies have another way of communicating via their modems. With a computer, a modem, and the proper software, companies can post their own pages on the World Wide Web for perusal all around the world. The commercialization of the Internet has forever altered the landscape of how business is done. The Internet is growing like wildfire, due to the proliferation of hardware and software that is expanding its potential. But to take advantage of any of this wonderful stuff, you first need a modem.

Buying a modem can greatly increase the value of your computer to your start-up business. With a modem and the appropriate software, you will have the power to 1) fax to and from your office, with your faxes appearing much cleaner; 2) use voice mail, with separate extensions and "voice-mailboxes" for everyone in your office; and 3) have Internet access for one user or for your entire staff, including global e-mail. If this sounds intimidating, you should know that today's level of software promises easy installation and use.

Freelancer Byron Veale writes about small-business issues from his home office in Belle Mead, New Jersey.

Modems: From Specific to Ubiquitous

Why are modems so commonplace now? The Internet is probably the main reason--people around the world have been exposed to it in some way or another. Most people find it useful; others are still discovering how it can help them.

The Internet is one more way to make your start-up company seem larger than it is. Establishing a presence on the Web instantly makes your business a global one. This international Internet explosion has made computers and modems more like household items. Thanks to modern software, both computers and modems are easier to use. Faxing from your computer is now as easy as printing. Many modems and computers come with Internet browsers, which make getting onto the Internet as easy as pointing and clicking. Software developers are now trying to integrate the Internet transparently into the way you work, by incorporating it into the computer's operating system.

External vs. Internal

An external modem is a separate piece of equipment that plugs into one of your computer's serial ports. If all of your serial ports are currently occupied (by a printer and a label maker, for instance), then you may need an internal modem, which is a card that can be installed in one of your computer's expansion slots. There are different types of expansion slots, such as ISA (typically in older or less expensive PC clones), NuBus (in older Macintosh computers), or PCI (in newer PCs and Macintosh computers). Before purchasing an internal modem, check your computer's User Guide for the types of slots used.

Another thing to look for in internal modem cards (for PCs) is how you can change the communication (COM) serial port settings, especially if you already have other items attached to your computer (each item needs a unique setting). Some modem cards require physically moving tiny jumper pins into a new setting, while other modem cards let you change settings using software. You have to ask yourself how involved you really want to get. If you do need an internal modem, and aren't comfortable tearing into your computer, then get estimates on having the modem installed--it should take no more than an hour for a professional. To find someone to perform the installation, you could ask the store where you bought the modem, or look in the Yellow Pages under "Computer Services." If you feel inclined to try installing it yourself, be sure you read the directions, especially if you own a PC. (Macintosh computers are typically less fussy.)

If you are looking for a modem for your laptop, then you probably won't want either of the aforementioned types of modems. An external modem isn't very "portable," and would detract from the convenience of your laptop. An internal modem may be prohibitively expensive to install--especially if you try to install it yourself and break your laptop! If your laptop has slots to accept PCMCIA cards--"PC cards," for short--you can purchase a modem card that will fit. A little larger than two credit cards stacked together, these miniature marvels let you plug your laptop into any standard phone line. There are even cellular options, should you wish to be unencumbered by the need for a wall jack. These generally come with the same great software as the desktop models.

How Fast Do You Want to Go?

There are three basic types of modems: standard, cable and ISDN. Cable and ISDN modems are high-speed solutions that go two to three times faster than standard. These high-cost modems are not meant to enable you to fax your documents along at 10 pages-per-minute; rather, they are designed with heavy Internet access in mind. The speed difference when "surfing the Net" is remarkable--Web pages that would take a minute or so to download can appear almost instantly, and movies that would take several minutes to preload before playing can start playing immediately. If you are searching for the Web sites of companies similar to your own--in order to keep abreast of what they offer to the market, or check their growth over time--this kind of speed can save you hours otherwise spent waiting, hours you can use to improve your company.

1. Standard modems. Standard modems connect to ordinary phone lines and allow transmittal of data at current speed maximums of 33,600 kilobytes per second, or 33.6 Kbps. (Faxes transmit at a maximum of 14.4 Kbps.) These modems are relatively inexpensive (around $200), and are very simple to install and use. The only drawback, however, is that these modems hook into a phone system that is straining under the rapid growth of Internet users and providers. Ask anyone you know who surfs the Web how often they cannot get access or, worse yet, lose access in the middle of sending or retrieving a document. Often, data may be transmitted at roughly half--sometimes as low as 10 percent--of the modem's maximum rate. If you plan on using the Internet as a powerful resource to drum up business, these kinds of faults can be quite critical.

2. Cable modems. Cable modems are just what the name implies: modems that connect to the same kind of cable that plugs into your television set, utilizing the miles and miles of cable already laid across the country. Their "bandwidth," or data transferal rate, is approximately 128 Kbps--about four times the rate of standard modems.

The nation's cable companies are pushing for this technology to become an established standard in this country, but cable modems have yet to enter the mainstream due to their limited availability. They have been test-marketed, but the full implementation of the technology just isn't available now. It has yet to be seen if they will become a viable alternative or just another flash in the pan.

3. ISDN modems. ISDN is a relatively expensive solution, yet it's available immediately. Unlike cable modems, you can call up your phone company today and ask to have your office wired for ISDN lines as soon as possible (the lines are not the same as your existing phone lines). You could then call up a mail order computer catalog and arrange to have an ISDN modem delivered to your door the next morning. With bandwidth on the order of 128 Kbps, ISDN modems are also about four times as fast as standard modems. One downside is that you will need to fork out roughly $75 per month, per line, for this service. Contact your phone company to determine if this service is available in your area.

Before you do commit to ISDN, you had better be certain you will be able to use all that horsepower you'll be investing in. Confer with your Internet Service Provider (ISP), as they may not be able to properly support the boost in bandwidth. As you call in and connect with your ISP, they in turn connect remotely to another source, one closer to the "heart" of the Internet. Unfortunately, all it takes is one clog upstream in your provider's pipeline to cripple the high-speed connection. You should also try to find out if the Web sites you wish to access can support high-level bandwidths, or you'll have to constantly wait for the information to download, despite your high-speed hardware.

Attention: Speed Bumps Ahead!

As with most computer components, modems are continually being updated and advanced. Current technology maxes out at 33.6 Kbps, but this will soon be eclipsed by modems that offer data rates of 56 Kbps--roughly half the speed of cable and ISDN modems--without the hassle of having to rewire your office or pay higher monthly fees. Modem manufacturers have announced that some of their modems currently being shipped to stores already have the higher capability built into them, but require software to unlock the speedier transfer rates. Other, slightly older modems will offer the accelerated rates through a very minor (about $50) hardware upgrade. Many of the other modems on the market won't be upgradeable at all, so shop carefully before buying. If you have determined that a standard modem will best suit your needs, look for one that promises upgradeability to 56 Kbps.

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