Faster modem upgrades are going to disappoint a lot of people

Personal Computers

March 23, 1998|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

HOORAY! A new international standard for so-called 56K modems will eventually eliminate much confusion. Hooray? In the short run, users are likely to be more bewildered than ever.

On Feb. 6, the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency, announced that it had agreed on the technical specifications for a single international 56K standard, to be known as V.90. The formal approval process should be completed in September.

Modem makers quickly jockeyed to demonstrate their support for the new standard. In recent weeks, Rockwell, Lucent and 3Com announced that modems based on their V.90 technology would work with each other's server hardware. Several vendors began shipping modems labeled with the V.90 rubric. 3Com began offering free software upgrades to V.90 for many of the company's X2 modems, and other manufacturers have announced similar offerings.

So can we put the situation to rest with a "happily ever after"? Not quite. Internet service providers are only beginning to upgrade their systems to the new standard, so the rule remains: If you want 56K service, you still need to be sure your provider's 56K standard matches your modem's. But now there are extra gotchas.

3Com's software upgrades, for example, are meant to allow desktop modems to handle either the new model V.90 connections or the older X2 ones.

Some modems from other companies have a different problem. Because they have less flash memory, they lack the room to hold enough software code to handle two 56K standards at once. If you upgrade one of these modems to V.90 and then discover that your Internet provider has stuck with an older standard, you will not get 56K service back until your provider upgrades its service or you pour the old code back into your modem, assuming you can get the manufacturer to supply it. At least the modem should fall back to one of the older, slower speeds.

In the past year, many 56K modems have come with new computers. Most should be able to be upgraded to V.90, but getting the upgrade from a computer maker may be difficult. In looking through the Web sites of several manufacturers, I was unable to find a single mention of an upgrade, let alone an offer of one.

In the interest of research, I tried upgrading my 3Com U.S. Robotics modem. At its Web site, I was asked to find a product code on the bottom of the unit and click it in an on-screen list. Two clicks later, the site confirmed that I was entitled to a free upgrade and invited me to click on the upgrade now button.

A 1.2-megabyte file downloaded in about 3 minutes and 45 seconds. Installing it would have been quicker had I not stopped to ponder the meaning of messages about possibly having to pay for the improvement. Those messages were meant for people upgrading from some of the company's pre-56K models.

The software's three-minute long-distance call to a Chicago area code at my expense finished the job. But the next time I booted the machine, the Windows 95 plug-and-play system saw my modem as a different model and failed to install the proper driver software. Moreover, no documentation mentioned the need to switch several software settings from the "old" modem to the "new." I tried to file this column by modem, but the only way I could connect was by adding the command "S32(equals)66" to the connection string to turn off the V.90 code.

The lessons: When buying a 56K modem or getting one with a computer, you still need to make sure it will be compatible with the Internet provider's service. Since most modems on the shelves and in new machines are not V.90 yet, make sure whatever you buy can be upgraded easily at no cost. And look for deals letting you trade in older, slower models for new ones.

If you already own a 56K modem and new software is available to upgrade it to V.90, wait until you are absolutely sure your Internet provider has done its own upgrading, probably before the end of the year.

If you use the Web a lot, you will soon start wishing for another standard entirely, like the cable or the digital subscriber line, commonly known as DSL, phone modems that are slowly beginning to rewrite the definition of "fast."

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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