The Need for Speed

You might think the Web is cool now, but just wait until we get faster modems. That will change everything! Instead of just sitting in front of your screen with your mouth open like a geek, you will bask in the flickering glow of astonishing multimedia images! Stereo sound! Exciting advertisements! Yes, in the future you will sit in front of your screen with your mouth open like somebody watching MTV!All that we need to reach this multimedia Valhalla is bandwidth. Speed. Bits per second. Megabytes per minute.Unfortunately, how much bandwidth we get -- those of us without the luxury of high-speed corporate connections -- depends on a single piece of equipment: the modem, that warm little blinking brick that connects your computer to your phone line.Modems have always been too slow. However many bits per second ("bps") they can pump, it has never been enough. Early consumer modems operated at 110bps, about enough to send the equivalent of a page of typewritten text in 30 seconds. Today, the fastest modems boast 56Kbps, 56,000 bits per second -- making them almost six hundred times faster -- and cost less than their forebears. But are we happy? Hell no!Along with that speed increase has come a plethora of ways to use it up. Foremost among them is the heavy use of graphic images on the World Wide Web.The arrival of images on the Web in the early '90s was the catalyst that online advertising had been waiting for. When you surf many parts of the Web today, your modem is spending half of its time fetching ads. More ads make things slow, so we need faster modems. Then the faster modems allow even bigger ads. Some of them will be ads for still faster modems. Will a 56K modem bring you into a new universe of productivity and excitement? Yes, and a lava lamp will help you score chicks! Think about it: when the best that Internet World magazine (which the mailman thoughtfully delivered as I was working on this column) can muster for their cover story on these devices is "56K modems promise 4x gain É but not for everyone," you know there's trouble. New, fast, high-demand computer accessories aren't supposed to receive that kind of lukewarm welcome. Yet lukewarm is the only honest response. What you get out of one of these new modems depends on whether your Internet Service Provider (ISP) upgrades too, whether they have the right kind of phone connection, and whether their choice of one of two incompatible would-be standards matches yours. One 56K modem company admits on their web site that top speeds "may only be reached over the best possible channels."This isn't new, either. Yesterday's fastest modems, 33.6Kbps and 28.8Kbps, rarely achieve their rated speeds on real-world telephone lines. In fact, one friend whose office is in a rural area was told by his local phone company that they don't guarantee anything above 9600bps, a third of his modem's rated speed. These harsh realities are a marked contrast to the klaxon of modem advertisements, which hawk every new increment of modem speed as -- taking a look at some of the ads in that magazine the mailman just brought -- "incredibly fast" or "so exciting." Like estimated car mileage, recommended serving sizes, and other advertising gambits that prey on consumers' wishful thinking, advertised modem speeds need to be taken with a grain of salt, or at least with a large margin of error. And if all this means that the Net is converted into MTV at a slower pace, I can't say that I mind.***Sites in my SightsTo learn more, don your hype suit and visit US Robotics (www.usr.com/x2now) or Lucent Technologies (www.lucent.com/micro/K56flex), representing the two incompatible 56K standards. Or learn more than anybody needs to know about the teletype, ancestor of the modem-equipped computer (www.qsl.net/k7on/index20.htm).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingDevotees of multimedia tend to have a blind spot for certain computer users -- like, well, the blind. If you're interested in learning more about online resources for the disabled, check out this comprehensive list from the Institute for Global Communications (www.igc.apc.org/pwd/text.html). No images, I promise.Want to race modems? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia website is at www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/©1997 by Paul Bissex

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