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Hurry Up and Wait To Buy Newer, Faster 56K Modem

If you've been hankering for faster access to the Internet, here's a modest proposal: Get ready to buy one of those superfast modems. They're called 56K modems and they're speedier than the previous generation. The reason to consider buying one this year is that manufacturers have finally agreed to standardize the way these gizmos work. The first standardized versions are starting to hit the store shelves now.

But wait a little longer before you buy. The first versions of any new computer product usually come with bugs and kinks. A few months should allow the industry to test the technology and make the transition.

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To be honest, modems are my least favorite computer gadget. They use prehistoric means to dial up and "talk" to other computers. Cable-television networks, satellite services, even the telephone company offer faster more efficient methods.

The problem with these alternatives is that they're either too expensive, too complicated to set up, or not yet widely available. The most intriguing technology - the cable-TV modem - won't be available to a broad swath of consumers until well into next year.

Theoretically, 56K modems can receive up to 56,000 bits of data a second ("K" stands for kilobits). That's a lot faster than today's standard 33.6K modems. The hitch is that the new models don't really operate that fast.

You can blame the United States government for part of it. Federal regulations effectively limit modems to about 53,000 bits a second. Noise on most phone lines slows them further. Users are doing well if they can zip along at 50,000 bits per second. For example, IBM spokesman Rusty Carpenter can get his modem to run at 45,000 to 53,000 bits per second at the office, but only 33,000 to 40,000 at home.

Modem users may get some help from the new standard (called V.90 and approved by the International Telecommunication Union last month). "You will have a more stable connection," says Sara Powers, spokeswoman for 3Com. The company is the first to start shipping V.90-compliant modems. And its USRobotics-brand modems incorporate a new technology that better determines line noise.

The new V.90 standard will also clean up the marketing mess caused by nonstandard 56K modems. Until now, if you wanted speedier Internet access, you had to choose between modems based on 3Com's implementation and those using Rockwell and Lucent technology. The two technologies couldn't intercommunicate, so if you bought one kind of modem and your Internet service provider used the other - well, it was chaos.

The good news is that people who bought those nonstandard modems will be able to upgrade to the V.90 standard for free. All it takes is a change of software. The bad news is that some people who bought nonstandard modems based on Rockwell/Lucent technology may not have enough memory to carry both the old code and the new.

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That means some upgraded modems might no longer connect at high speeds with Internet service providers that haven't upgraded yet. So give the industry a little time to standardize. IBM Global Network, which aims to be first, should be fully V.90 compliant in the US by the end of this month. It will take until September, perhaps, before the bulk of the industry makes the transition, says Renee Bader, vice president of worldwide marketing at Xircom, which makes modems for portable computers.

But get ready to upgrade. When it comes to cruising the Internet, everyone can use extra speed.

* Send comments to or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at

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