Michael Woods: Super-fast modem probably is slower than you think

The following article first appeared in the Toledo Blade on Nov. 6,1999. It is reprinted here with his permission.

Michael Woods: Super-fast modem probably is slower than you think
November 6, 1999

Even with that blisteringly fast modem, you rarely connect to AmericaOnline, CompuServe, or your Internet Service Provider at maximum speeds like 28,800 bits per second (bps) or 33,600 bps.

Often you're stuck with snail's pace connections like 19,200 bps or even 9,600 bps. Then there are those maddening "random disconnects," when you're mysteriously cut off and have to dial again.

Several problems could be causing those frustrating situations, including a modem that has not been properly configured, or "line noise."

Solving modem configuration problems often takes help from a professional. If you have a newer modem and it always connects at a slow speed and constantly disconnects, check with technical support at the company where you buy online access to see whether your modem is configured properly.

Solving line noise problems can be a do-it-yourself project because there often are easily identifiable and correctable causes.

Telephone line quality in most parts of the United States is excellent, especially when compared to some other countries. Many phone lines in Russia, for instance, where I've traveled extensively for the last 15 years, will barely support a 300 bps data transmission.

Phone companies in the United States have to comply with Federal Communications Commission regulations on minimum line quality. Almost all meet the minimum requirements. Sometimes, however, line noise does originate with the local telephone company. More often, it originates right inside the home.

Line noise means unwanted electronic signals that find their way onto your telephone line, or a loss of the signal that should be on the line.

Noise can cause random disconnects by interfering with the exchange of electronic signals that your modem, and the modem on the other end, need to stay in contact. It also may become a factor in the modems' decisions on transmission speed.

When connecting, modems do not always agree to use their maximum possible speed. Check the archives on The Blade's Web site ( www.toledoblade.com) for a previous column on how modems talk to each other in the chirps and squeals audible at the start of a connection.

Rather, they use line quality and other considerations to negotiate a more realistic communication speed. With a noisy line, they may agree on 2,400 bps. A quiet line may lead to agreement on 36,600 bps.

Try to determine if there is noise on your telephone line, and whether it interferes with your modem's performance. Line quality can vary over time, so perform the checks several times over a period of a few days.

First, pick up the telephone handset, dial one digit, and listen carefully. Line noise consists of static, pops, buzzes, and bleed-over of conversations from other telephone lines. You may be able to hear noise.

Second, determine whether other electronic equipment, such as a fax machine or telephones, is connected to your modem line. The devices can diminish line quality. Cheap telephones, especially those with a digital readout that is continuously active, can add noise. Disconnect the devices, establish a dial-up connection with your modem, and see if speed improves or the random disconnect situation improves.

Third, check the effects of using a shorter cord leading from the telephone outlet jack to your computer. If performance improves, move your computer closer to the jack.

Fourth, if you have more than one phone line in the house, try plugging the modem into a different line, and see if performance improves. Performance on one line may be substantially better than another.

If you consistently hear noise on a line and none of these fixes work, ask the phone company to check the line. Retail outlets offer several kinds of line "filters" that are supposed to clean up noisy lines, but opinions differ on their value. Michael Woods, The Blade's science editor, can be reached online at his e-mail address, michaelwoods@mindspring.com.


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