Reflections of a ModemJunkie

April, 1998

Catch 56

by Leonard Grossman

After I wrote this column I learned things may not be as bad as I thought. For an update see the Errata section below.

Don't read this article unless you have already checked your e-mail. Notice - - I didn't say read it all. Just check it and then come back. More about that later.

Remember Catch 22? Now it's Catch 56.

For months now I have been advising people to wait for the 56 K modem standard to be finalized before replacing their 33.6 modems. No sense jumping the gun and getting stuck. But a few weeks ago I found an on line offer for a Zoom K56Flex modem I couldn't ignore. I guess there is a reason they call me the ModemJunkie.

I tested my phone line and it was supposed to support the higher speeds, so after the exchange of a few e-mails the seller appeared in my study one Saturday morning with the new modem in its box, docs intact.

We hooked it up and I listened to it warble its strange new tune. On the third try I got a KFlex connection at about 44000 k. Not bad, I thought. I checked the news groups to find out that very day that V.90, as the final 56 K. standard is known, was out -sort of.

So nirvana is here.. What''s the catch?

First of all, 56 k modems (whether X2 machines or KFlex) are only high speed one way. Uploads are still limited to v.34 speeds. Second, many phone lines are incapable of handling the 56 k connection. Third, Federal regulations limit the permissible speed to slightly less than 56 k. even if your line could handle it. Fourth . . .

Are you beginning to get the idea that there is a catch here. That nirvana is a long way off.

Wait! There is more. The V.90 standard is not backward compatible to K56 or the X2 standard. Although a few modems will be capable of the dual standard, once flashed to the V.90 standard, many if not most of the modems sold during the past year will not be capable of connecting at speeds higher than 33.6 to ISPs that have not yet upgraded from either K56 or X-2 to V. 90. Yet ISPs that have upgraded to V.90 will not, in most cases have dual capability, meaning that those users who have K 56 or X2 modems but have not yet upgraded will lose their 56 K capability.

This means that timing is essential. To avoid disappointment, don't flash your modem to V. 90 until your ISP makes the move and announces that it is ready. If you jump ahead you should still be able to get V.34 connections but that is not why you shelled out the green,

Of course, V. 34 connections are not bad. On my "old" Cardinal modem I connected at 33.6 about 20% of the time and at 28.8 most of the rest of the time. On about 20% of my connections in recent weeks error correction has failed to negotiate, as a result, supposedly, of noisy lines. On the other hand with the 56 k modem I am now connecting at higher speeds (above 28.8) only about 10% of the time. And the highest speed I have connected at is 44k. But virtually all of my connections are now good. So, even if I can't take advantage of the higher speeds, I am getting more solid connections. Maybe it's only Catch 55.

If you want solid facts about the new modems instead of the frustrated ramblings of a ModemJunkie, visit Navas 28800-56K Modem FAQTM by John Navas. If you have more questions about modems, look at the newsgroup comp.dcom.modems.

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Now about that e-mail

Why all of this concern with speed? What are we trying to do?

Mail does download faster. News flies, some of the time. But as I have learned at the office where I have networked access to a T-1 line (so they tell me), much of the time I spend on line is waiting. Not because my connection is slow but because there is a bottleneck somewhere else on the Internet. It could be that I am trying to reach a busy site, it could be a slow server on the other end, it could be the time of day.

Did you ever notice that as computer speeds got faster and faster your floppy drive got slower and slower. Well, it didn't. It just seemed that way. The same is true of waiting on line. With data moving faster when it moves, down time really drags. There is not much - No!!- there is nothing you can do about that. And it's going to get worse.

Still, the Internet is, above all, about communication. I take great pleasure in checking my daily log to see how many hits I have had on my web pages and how many countries are represented in my log. Last month the raw data for my html.log (a record of every hit on files I maintain) exceeded seven megabytes of ASCII text. Still, l have very little idea of whether people are finding what they are looking for when they get there, but it is nice to know they are coming to look.

But so often my e-mail goes out into the ether. And I never hear back. What difference does it make how fast it goes, if no one reads in on the other end.

Unfortunately, there is no ordinary way to find out if someone got your e-mail. Until you get a reply or the message bounces you just don't know.

It is amazing how many people give out their e-mail addresses but never check their mail.

I admit, I am compulsive about it. I check my e-mail several times a day . . . and sometimes in the middle of the night. I don't think that is necessary or even healthy. But I do think everyone who has an e-mail address should check for mail at least once a day.

The best practice is to check for mail the first time you boot up each day. Make it part of the routine - - or don't tell anyone you have an e-mail address.

I find it amazing how many people will hand you a card with an e-mail address or scribble it out for you when you ask. And then they don't look at it. When I ask about a message I have sent they reply, "Oh, I only check my mail two or three times a week," or I only check it when I want to send something.

Why bother.

It's about communication isn't it.

E-mail is one of the fastest, simplest forms of communication. I am not saying you have to answer every note. Certainly not right away. We should not be slaves to our machines. But check it. It might actually be important. It might be time sensitive.

Under Jewish law, funerals are held within a very few days of a death. Members of my synagogue have complained for years that postcards announcing these sad occasions always seem to arrive the same day as the funeral or the next. Phone trees never seem to work, We are slowly creating a database of members e-addresses. Those who read their mail get the news immediately. For the others, they might as well be back in the dark ages.

The editor of a newsletter I write for has an e-mail account . . . two, I think. Last month I couldn't reach him by phone so I left him an e-mail with the details for my column.

He also has a communications program with a host mode. When I want to reach him he wants to call him and have him set his com program up to wait for my call. Then I call using a DOS com program (Telix) and upload the file. Sometimes I can't reach him. Sometimes he calls me and leaves a message asking for my small article. I come home too late to return the call. Several days can be lost this way.

If he checked his e-mail just once a day, he could cut and paste my few comments each month in a few seconds and days of phone tag could be avoided.

Don't get me wrong. He does a wonderful job of getting the newsletter out every month. Even when I call and ask him to figure out what I would have wanted to say or don't get back to him in time for the deadline. It looks professional and clean. It even has useful information. But, why not use the tools available to make it easier.

At work I reserve the right to click "No" when the e-mail box pops up and asks if I want to read it now. I don't have to interrupt my train of thought to please the machine. So, please don't get compulsive about it.

But check it. Then decide.

Errata [Otherwise known as "OOPS!!"]:

One of the advantage of writing online is that you very quickly find out when you are wrong. John Navas and others wrote last month after I wrote this column to point out that the sky is not really falling. Some of the fears I expressed related to the move to the v.90 protocol may have been unwarranted.

It appears that V. 90 as implemented will generally be backwards compatible with whatever protocol was previously implemented by the ISP. Thus, users of Kflex ISPs shoud be able to continue to connect at Klfex speeds after the ISP upgrades to v. 90. The same is true of X2 providers. That is, subscribers with X2 modems should still be able to connect at X2 speeds after their old XT provider upgrades to v.90. But complete compatability between X2 and KFlex will not be available.

OTOH, most modems, except for a few deliberately backward compatible units. will probably not be able to connect to Kflex or X2 sites at Kflex and X2 speeds once they have been flashed. They will still be able to connect to those sites at v. 34 speeds.

This may not make much difference to many of us. Poor line quality and other difficulties between the end user and the Telco switch makes it very difficult if not impossible for many of us to regularly connect at the higher speeds in any event. I get connects above 28.8 with my Kflex only about 10 percent of the time and those connections degrade fairly rapidly. But then last week I sampled cable modems for the first time.

Anyone know a bank I can rob?

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Copyright 1998 Leonard Grossman

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My essays regularly appear in slightly different form in WindoWatch Magazine which contains a wealth of fascinating information.

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