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Interest in the Internet has reached a fever pitch. Growing numbers of individuals and companies are posting Web pages. And these pages are increasingly sophisticated: Instead of just text, they're likely to contain multimedia and video elements, and even connections to a company database.
But all the bits and bytes required to transmit this information can really bog down computer performance. To improve performance with these new applications, you need a bigger pipeline to shuffle bits and bytes between your computer and the Web. In other words, you may need a faster modem--if not now, then most probably within the next year or two. (Of course, some performance problems are due to excessive traffic on the Web. If you can't get on at all; or if you access a Web site, see that there's a text-only version of the page, call that up, and still experience poor performance, there may just be a lot of Web traffic.)
How can you speed up access? You have several options, depending on your time frame. New modems that were in development at press time, and should be on shelves by the time you read this, promise to transmit at speeds of up to 56.6 Kbps (kilobytes per second), up from the current 33.6 Kbps standard. Another option is upgrading to ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) technology, which offers data transfer speeds of 128 Kbps. (ISDN service is not available in all areas, however, and is more expensive and more complicated to use than non-ISDN modems.)
Within the next few years, you'll have the option of switching to newer, even faster technologies that are on the horizon. Cable modems, which are being BODYed nationwide, run over cable TV lines and will be able to receive data at speeds of up to 6 Mbps (megabytes per second) and upload data at speeds of 640 Kbps. Eventually, these modems will be able to receive data at speeds of 10 Mbps. Another upcoming technology, ADSL (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line), will have speeds similar to the cable modem.
Several modem vendors, including U.S. Robotics, Rockwell, Diamond and Motorola's Information Systems Group, have new modems that should be available by the time you read this and will transmit data at 56.6 Kbps, nearly double the rate of today's fasBODY modems.
The speed boost will be most noticeable when users access or download data from the Internet as opposed to uploading information to the Web. For example, Motorola's architecture can provide 56.6 Kbps speeds from Internet service providers (ISPs) to users and 33.6 Kbps speeds from users to ISPs.
If you want options for upgrading, Cardinal Technologies' Cardinal Voyager is a 33.6 Kbps modem that is upgradeable to ISDN and will also be upgradeable to 56.6 Kbps when that technology becomes available in the next few months via software downloadable from the Web. The price ranges from $149 to $199, with the ISDN upgrade at $79; prices for the 56.6 Kbps upgrade were not available at press time.
In The Fast Lane
ISDN has been around for years but has only recently become popular, thanks to the explosion of interest in the Internet. ISDN speeds allow you to download files in about a quarter of the time you could with a 28.8 Kbps modem.
Why would anyone use a 56.6 modem when ISDN is available? Because ISDN, to put it bluntly, can be a pain in the neck. It is more expensive than other means of connecting, and depending on the know-how (or lack of it) of your local phone company, setting it up can be a slow, hassle-filled process.
To get started, you need to order an ISDN line from your local telephone company, connect a digital modem to your PC, and order ISDN service from your online service or ISP. Here are the details:
Order the line. You'll first need to find out whether ISDN service is available in your area. It's now an option for most city and suburban dwellers in the United States. But even if ISDN is generally available, it may not be available in every area of your city. For example, some areas of Phoenix don't have access to ISDN service. Availability in rural areas is even more spotty.
Ask your local phone company whether it offers a service called ISDN basic rate interface (BRI). This service provides two 64 Kbps channels that can behave as a single 128 Kbps data pipeline. The BRI does not require any special wiring, but the phone company must configure the switching equipment. ISDN service costs up to $300 for installation, with monthly service charges ranging from $35 to $100, depending on which region of the country you're in.
If many users in your company want ISDN connections, Siemens Business Communication Systems offers a service called OfficePoint that allows several users to share ISDN BRI lines, thereby lowering the per-user cost.
Connect a digital modem. ISDN, or digital, modems, such as U.S. Robotics' Sportster ISDN 128K Terminal Adapter, start at about $250. These "modems" are actually network adapters and require an NT-1 unit to complete the connection. When purchasing your modem, make sure it includes an NT-1 unit.
Many digital modems come with ports for attaching analog modems, fax machines or phones. This allows you to use one 64 Kbps channel for your computer and the other for your phone and fax, rather than having to get two or more separate phone lines for all your equipment. It's especially important to have analog support so you can reach people or online services that don't support ISDN modems.
Obtain an ISDN connection. Make sure your ISP or online service supports ISDN. Internet ISDN service is widely available from national and regional ISPs. Among the major online services, The Microsoft Network and CompuServe are the leading supporters of ISDN.
Wired For Speed
In the long term, cable modems connected to cable TV lines promise to provide far faster access speeds at a better price than ISDN. Cable technology should allow you to receive data at speeds ranging from 500 Kbps to 30 Mbps, and send data from your PC at speeds ranging from 96 Kbps to 10 Mbps--all for less than $50 per month. For example, a cable modem will allow users to download a 72 Mbit short animation clip or video in 18 seconds, compared with the 21-plus minutes needed when using ISDN.
This technology is not available commercially and probably won't be for another year or two, but there are a number of pilot projects underway. Communities where cable modems are being BODYed include Sunnyvale, California, where Tele-Communications is BODYing @Home Network; Greater Akron and Canton, Ohio, where Time Warner's Road Runner trial is in progress; and Elmira, New York, where Time Warner is BODYing LineRunner. Both of Time Warner's products offer original content as well as access to the Internet and e-mail.
Although the vast majority of U.S. homes are already wired for cable, there are a number of technological hurdles cable companies will have to overcome before cable modem technology can become widely available. One major problem is that today's cable connections are only one-way and people using cable modems require two-way interactivity. Cable operators will need to allocate spectrum on the cable for "upstream" signals so you can send data from your PC back to the Internet. Because all homes or offices in a neighborhood share one transmission channel, if your neighbors do lots of downloads, your performance will suffer unless the cable operator provides additional capacity or channels.
Because cable modems are a new technology, they are relatively expensive and there is little standardization, meaning cable modems from different vendors are incompatible. If you move to another city, you'll need to get a new cable modem from the local cable operator. Efforts to standardize cable modems are underway, however, with the several industry consortia already working on the issue and some individual vendors starting to work together to ensure their products will be compatible.
Still, with the cable industry in need of a major overhaul before its technology can successfully deliver Internet services, cable modems are not yet ready for prime time.
In The Future
Another new technology on the horizon is ADSL. Originally, AT&T developed ADSL to transmit movies over the Internet, but the technology was ignored until the Telecommunications Act of 1996 freed local phone companies to provide cable TV and other nontraditional services.
Offering speeds of between 1.6 Mbps and 8 Mbps per second downstream and 640 Kbps upstream, ADSL's big advantage is that it can be used over the same copper wire you use for your phone.
Unfortunately, the widespread application of this technology is being held up by litigation by the local phone companies, which want to maintain control over the local connections. Customers will either have to wait for their local phone companies to offer the service (US West, for example, has announced plans to do so), which will probably be quite some time because phone companies need to modify a lot of equipment, or wait for the courts to give larger long-distance companies, such as MCI, access to the local wires so they can offer the service.
There are a number of options for speeding your access to the Internet. ISDN is the only one available today. In the future, however, you can look forward to continued improvements in speed and reductions in price for high-speed Internet access.
Cardinal Technologies Inc., 1827 Freedom Rd., Lancaster, PA 17601, (717) 293-3000;
Siemens Business Communications Systems Inc., (408) 492-2000, (http://www.siemenscom.com);
U.S. Robotics, (800) INSIGHT, (http://www.insight.com).
Cheryl J. Goldberg is a former editor of PC Magazine and has reported on the computer industry for more than 14 years. Write to her in care of Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614. You can also reach her via CompuServe at 70641,3632.