Sceptical users and industry observers are starting to seriously question whether modem makers can deliver on the promise of 56Kbits/sec technology.
When word came in September that several companies were preparing a chipset that would double the speed of 28.8Kbits/sec modems, users heaved a sigh of relief.
Users anticipated a faster way to connect to the Internet, without the cost, limited access and configuration headaches of ISDN. The analog modem promises 56Kbits/sec speeds over regular telephone lines when users download information from the Internet and 28.8 to 33.6Kbits/sec speeds when they send requests for information.
But Wen Liao, a senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, a New York-based consultancy, says users shouldn't hold out hope for modem speeds of more than 40Kbits/sec. And to get that, she says, users would need clean phone lines and servers that aren't overloaded.
Michael Dziak, general manager of the Metro Atlanta Telecommuting Advisory Council in Snellville, Georgia, and president of InteleWorks Inc., a telecommuting consultancy, says he can't even get 28.8K-bits-per-second speeds now.
"You really can't do much more over analog lines," Dziak says. "I already am dropped in midconnection to the Internet enough that I know if I try to speed up the transmission, it won't work."
The main problem is that analog lines were designed to suppress noise at the expense of speed. Connections at higher speeds are often dropped because the lines can't handle the traffic.
"I'm scared of 56K [bits per second]," says Teresa Milly, a telecommunications systems engineer at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s enterprise information services division in Orlando, Florida. "I'm not sure the [the telephone system] can support it."
Milly's division has 2000 telecommuters and users who were upgraded from 14.4Kbits/sec to 28.8Kbits/sec modems in April 1996. Since then, she said, users have complained about lost connections and problems with noise interference on phone lines.
U.S. Robotics Corp., which has been leading the charge, recently acknowledged that users won't be able to connect at the full 56Kspeed, but at 53Kbits/sec instead. That is because of U.S. Federal Communications Commission rules to protect switching equipment that could get overloaded by high-speed transmissions, according to Larry Kraft, manager of product marketing at U.S. Robotics in Skokie, Illinois.
U.S. Robotics is seeking a waiver for its X2 technology, which it is testing, to reach the 56K bits per second that the company insists is attainable.
But the overall slowdown of the Internet poses another obstacle to fast downloading of information.
"Just making the access pipe faster doesn't make the Internet faster," says Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., a consultancy in Voorhees, New Jersey.
Nolle said his company recently asked 55 users to connect to the Internet using 28.8Kbits/sec modems. Only two made the connection at 28.8Kbits/sec, he said.
"I think with 28.8, we got as far as you can realistically expect modem technology to go," Nolle says. "If someone wants to go faster, then they need ISDN. Period."
To use 56K modem technology, dedicated hardware is required at the user's end and on the Internet service provider's side.