Monday, 12 October 1998
By David Wichner

When folks in the Research Triangle Park area near Raleigh, N.C., found themselves plodding along on the Internet at subpar speeds with their 56K modems, John Powell heard their complaints.

Powell, a network systems engineer for 3Com Corp., flew in from his Rolling Meadows, Ill., office to get a bead on the glitch afflicting people using the company’s US Robotics 56K modems.

“If people are having problems, I hear about it,” said Powell, who fixed the problem after narrowing it down to a certain type of phone-company switch.

Web surfers across the nation are enjoying faster connection speeds thanks to the advent of 56K modems, which can reach speeds of 53 kilobits per second.

But even after nearly two years on the market and the recent rollout of modems supporting a standard (called V.90) that unified two competing 56K formats, 56K is far from ubiquitous.

Internet newsgroups are aflame with complaints over poor 56K performance.

Makers of 56K modems last year had to defend themselves against a lawsuit claiming that 56K modems were systematically misrepresented as to the speeds they can achieve.

And in Tucson, a recent newspaper column on 56K modem problems evoked several hundred responses from area residents stuck with speeds as low as 19 kilobits per second on their much-vaunted 56K rigs.

The problem, in many cases, is the local telephone lines.

Modem makers have squeezed about as much bandwidth, or carrying capacity, as they can out of standard telephone lines.

But for 56K technology to work, phone lines have to support robust, low-noise connections.

Trouble comes in two flavors: old and new.

In some areas of the country, older lines create poor connections, said Kerry Verbanic, a business-development manager with modem-maker Diamond Multimedia Systems of Vancouver, Wash.

“In pocketed areas, there are lots of people who can’t get higher than 19 baud (1.9 kilobits per second),” Verbanic said. “Back East, it’s tough because the phone lines are old.”

Neighborhood phone systems in most cases were built only for voice transmissions, which require relatively low bandwidth, or carrying capacity.

U S West is required by state regulations to provide bandwidth of just 2.4 kbps on its standard phone lines.

As parts of the New West grew at a breakneck pace in the past two decades, U S West in many cases installed devices called digital loop carriers that allowed the phone company to split off more individual phone lines from each line leading from a central-office switch.

“The carrier is the quickest way to get the most out of additional lines,” said Bill Stack, Arizona general manager for U S West.

To accomplish that multiplication, the carriers take analog phone signals and covert them to digital. Closer to the customer, the signal is converted back to analog to be piped into the home.

Unfortunately, creating more than one conversion from analog to digital or vice versa usually pinches off the bandwidth available to modems to 28.8 kbps or less.

“They (U S West engineers) never anticipated the invention of the 56K modem,” U S West senior product developer Glenn Lebrun said.

No one knows for sure how many households can’t get 56K.

Research conducted by 3Com/US Robotics in conjunction with Bellcore, the regional phone companies’ research arm, showed that about 5 percent of U.S. phone lines would never get 56K, Powell said.

In many cases, digital loop carriers are to blame. Devices called load coils, used to clean up voice transmissions where neighborhood lines are stretched long distances, also can nix 56K connections.

But other line problems that wouldn’t affect voice communications can cut modem speeds.

George Feathers, a retired radar engineer, has never been able to get 56K speeds out of his US Robotics modem at his home near Golf Links and Harrison roads.

After spending hours on the phone to his modem maker and his Internet provider, America Online, Feathers had just about resigned himself to the 24- to 26-kbps speeds he had been getting.

But after noticing a noisy connection while in voice mode, Feathers finally called U S West to check his lines last month.

A phone company technician found two bad connections in the line leading to his house from the alley – including a spliced line lying on the ground.

With a temporary line in place, Feathers is now getting between 32 and 36 kbps, and he hopes he will be able to reach into the 40-kbps range when his permanent line is installed.

That would be a welcome step toward the 50-kbps-plus speeds Feathers has experienced on his son’s home computer in Orange County, Calif.

“The screens just about come up instantly,” he said of his son’s connection.

U S West’s Stack said the company does not send a technician to service a phone line unless there is evidence that voice quality is degraded, noting that phone customers are paying for only a “voice grade” line.

Often, wiring inside the home is to blame, 3Com’s Powell said.

In some homes, poor quality wire and wiring schemes that place data line at the end of a lineup of outlets can seriously degrade modem speeds, he said. Problems with Caller ID and touch-tone dialing can often signal wiring problems.

Powell recommends using a line test available through 3Com’s Web site ( to test if a line will support 56K.

High-speed options

For those who can’t get 56K connections, options are limited but improving:

* So-called “dual analog” or “bonded” modems, which combine two regular phone lines to double connection speeds, debuted late last year.

Diamond Multimedia offers its “Shotgun” dual-line technology in its SupraSonic modems.

The modems require an extra phone line (another $10 per month from U S West), and Internet Service providers charge for an extra connection.

But a dual-analog modem can be a viable alternative where 56K won’t work and emerging high-speed lines aren’t available or are cost-prohibitive, Diamond’s Verbanik said.

However, many ISPs – including StarNet, Tucson’s biggest provider – don’t support dual-analog modems.

Matthew Grossman, StarNet network operations project leader, said the cost of the extra dial-up connections don’t support dual-analog service.

But Verbanic said the dual-line technology can be cost-effective because the modems use the second line only when needed for added bandwidth.

* Digital Subscriber Line service, which offers basic connections of 256 kbps for $40 per month, is offered by U S West and through StarNet and The River in Tucson. Due to equipment limitations, it is currently available to about 20 percent of Tucson-area households.

But U S West is upgrading the area’s 18 central-office switches and adding other equipment that may push the qualification rate up to 60 percent within a couple of years, Stack said.

DSL also is relatively costly – about $110 for activation and $149 for optional home installation, and $40 per month in addition to Internet access fees. U S West currently is offering free DSL modems (regularly $300) through Oct. 31.

* DirecPC, a product of Hughes Network systems, employs mini-satellite dishes to reach connection speeds of 400 kbps (downstream; a regular phone line is used for sending data to the Internet).

* Cable-TV provider Cox Communications offers cable-modem service, providing connections of up to 1 megabits (about 1,000 kilobits) per second, in Phoenix. The service isn’t expected to be rolled out in the Tucson area for at least a year.