Give modem protection from nature

July 03, 2000|By Mike Himowitz

From the weather standpoint, it was a rotten week - hot and humid, with a seemingly endless supply of thunderstorms that rolled from the Midwest into the Northeast, one after the other, with gale-force winds driving solid sheets of rain that produced floods and power outages across a dozen states.

As luck would have it, my son and I took a couple of those days off to visit colleges in New England. We got very wet, spent a frightening half-hour on Interstate 91 in a downpour so thick that the only thing I could see was the headlights of the 18-wheeler riding my bumper, and passed a particularly uncomfortable evening reading by candlelight in a motel after a falling tree limb downed a power line a half-mile away.

It was only when we got home and dried out that I heard about the great modem massacre. A half-dozen friends and colleagues stopped by or called to report that their modems had mysteriously died while we were on our pilgrimage. Yes, they all had their computers plugged into power strips with surge suppressors, and aside from the modem problems, their PCs were working just fine.

Did I know what had happened and was there anything they could do about it? And would I write something about it in my column?

The answers are yes, yes and yes. In fact, I mentioned the modem problem in passing not long ago when I wrote my annual guide to protecting your PC from the dangers of summer weather. But it's certainly worth repeating. Given the power of last week's storms, your modem may be at far more risk than the rest of your computer.

Here's why. Unlike your PC, which is directly protected against power-line spikes by a regular surge suppressor, your modem faces danger from an additional source - the phone line.

Modems are particularly delicate pieces of electronic equipment, and a lightning-induced power surge in the phone line can cause it to behave erratically or die altogether. These surges are often so small that they won't affect any other part of your system, so chances are good that you won't know anything horrible has happened until you try to dial up your Internet Service Provider. Don't expect smoke or melted wires to tip you off.

Unfortunately, if your modem is gone, there's not much you can do except replace it. This isn't particularly expensive, as decent internal modems are available for $50 or less, while external modems cost about $100. You'll pay more for a modem that can also function as a speakerphone and answering machine, but if you have those gadgets already, it's a waste of cash to buy those features. You'd have to keep your PC running all the time to take advantage of them.

All things being equal, an internal modem will give you somewhat better performance than an external model. However, with all the other variables that can affect performance on the Internet, this shouldn't drive your buying decision.

External modems are much easier to install because you don't have to open your computer. Just plug the modem into your computer's serial or USB port. (Newer modems with USB connections will perform a bit better.) An external modem also is easier to troubleshoot because the lights on the front panel tell you when you've connected to another computer and when you're sending or receiving data.

If you buy an external modem, remember to get the proper cable to connect it to your PC.

For most of us, the important question is how to avoid needing to replace a modem in the first place. The best bet is a new power strip with special protection for your modem. You can tell these strips from the competition because they have two phone jacks in addition to the regular power receptacles. They cost a few dollars more than plain power strips, but they're well worth the money.

Your existing strip may well have phone protection that you've ignored, so check it before you replace it.

Along with the new power strip, you'll need a second phone cord to make the system work. These are available for a couple of bucks anywhere phone equipment is sold. Run one cord from your telephone wall jack to the power strip and another from the power strip to the jack on your modem. Special circuitry inside the power strip will trap the mini-spikes that phone lines can pass on.

Try it; you'll sleep better when the lightning flashes and the thunder roars.

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