Better modems for dial-up diehards?

Don’t say good-bye to that analog modem yet. For the 90 per cent of Web surfers who haven’t, new dial-up technologies promise faster speeds and other features to improve surfing the old-fashioned way.

There are a couple of catches, though. For dial-up customers to enjoy these benefits, ISPs (Internet service providers) must upgrade their equipment – and this isn’t expected to happen until this fall at the earliest. Also, tests in a demo environment suggest that the technologies may not be fully cooked yet.

But it’s clear that dial-up upgrades would still appeal to a large audience. Despite the buzz about high-speed access, at the end of 2000 the vast majority of people were still dialing into the Internet at speeds below 56 kilobits per second. Cahners In-Stat Group analyst Daryl Schoolar says factors such as geography and cost will keep the percentage of dial-up U.S. users to more than 55 per cent by 2005.

Dial-up gets an upgrade

The latest advances are a pair of dial-up modem standard upgrades. The first and best known, called V.92, adds some Internet-friendly functions to the widespread V.90 standard. For starters, it boosts upload speeds to 48 kbps, up from V.90’s theoretical maximum of 33.6 kbps. If you have call waiting through your local telephone company, V.92 also lets you put Internet modem connections on hold to take incoming phone calls. And your V.92 modem will connect to your Internet service provider more quickly than its V.90 predecessor.

At the same time, the International Telecommunication Union has ratified a separate modem compression standard called V.44. It allows for compression of Web pages at the ISP end and decompression by the V.44-compliant modem, so transmitting the same information requires fewer data packets. This gives the illusion that your Net connection is faster than it is.

Several vendors have been selling V.92 modems since shortly after the ITU ratified the standard last year. Among them are U.S. Robotics and Zoom Telephonics, including its Hayes division.

While U.S. Robotics supports only the V.92 standard so far, Zoom sells a modem that supports both the V.92 and V.44 standards. Larry Hancock, Zoom Telephonics marketing director, says normal surfing – that is, viewing Web pages – with V.44 technology can be nearly three times faster than with a V.90 connection. However, the speedup wouldn’t apply to data that is already compressed–for example, a large MP3 file.

For consumers, the good news is that V.92 modems cost very little more than their V.90 counterpart – about $15 more in the case of U.S. Robotics and Zoom products.

Dialing up a delay

However, people who buy these modems have yet to fully enjoy them.

In the seven months since the V.92 and V.44 standards were ratified, not one ISP has extended those services to its customers. And without a dial-up access point of presence that supports V.92, the only V.92 feature you can take partial advantage of is Internet Call Notification. If you’ve got call waiting, a pop-up window offers to disconnect from the Internet so you can take an incoming call. If your ISP supported V.92, you’d be able to suspend your Internet connection, take the call, hang up, and resume surfing without losing the connection to your ISP.

So far, only two ISPs have announced future support for V.92: and Option One Communications. claims to be the largest Wyoming ISP with 30,000 customers. Option One resells Internet access to 130 ISPs in California and elsewhere, and touches some 100,000 end users.

The problem is mostly a chicken-and-egg scenario. ISPs won’t offer V.92 services until more customers demand it, says Melissa He, a product manager at Lucent Technologies. Half the ISPs in the United States use Lucent equipment. Naturally, modem manufacturers think people won’t buy V.92 modems until more ISPs offer V.92 service, says Kevin Lacey, director of engineering for U.S. Robotics.

“For people who live out in the sticks where residential DSL isn’t available, they see V.92 as next-best thing,” says Heather Becker, marketing manager of The demand is not exactly a groundswell, but customers are increasingly interested, Becker adds. She says the most popular V.92 feature is “modem on hold,” which provides “almost-always-on” Internet service.

Smaller ISPs see V.92 as a competitive advantage, says Nicholas Sten, manager of the network solutions group for Option One, which will likely upgrade about half its ISP customers. “We see it as giving our smaller ISPs an edge over the AOLs of the world,” he says.

V.92 draws cool reception

Big ISPs generally sound lukewarm about V.92. Microsoft’s MSN is still evaluating V.92 and gives no timeline for a stated plan to “add elements” of the standard to its network. America Online says it is waiting to see if other ISPs jump on the standard before AOL commits to upgrading its network.

“We will thoroughly test V.92 and make sure it is stable and reliable before V.92 access is offered to AOL customers,” says AOL spokesperson Nicholas Graham.

EarthLink doesn’t plan to be “on the cutting edge” of V.92, either. “We don’t want our customers to be guinea pigs for the industry,” says Kurt Rahn, EarthLink director of communications.

This attitude isn’t surprising. ISPs spent between $3.5 and $4 billion worldwide upgrading their networking infrastructure to handle the V.90 56-kbps standard, according to IDC analyst Brad Baldwin.

Fortunately, V.92 doesn’t demand that kind of overhaul. For equipment from Lucent and Cisco Systems, the other major supplier of equipment to ISPs, the transition simply requires a software upgrade. V.92 is also backward compatible, so V.90 users won’t notice any difference dialing into a V.92 modem bank. However, Cisco notes that it has delayed V.92 development as part of its budget tightening.

V.92 not ready for prime time surfing

On the consumer side, U.S. Robotics offers V.90 modem owners a free software upgrade to the V.92 standard for select modem models.

Unfortunately, vendors say most older modems aren’t upgradeable because they lack the hardware power to handle the enhanced compression required for V.44 and faster upload speeds.

A hands-on evaluation of a U.S. Robotics V.92 modem suggests that the standard isn’t ready for prime time.

When I tested the U.S. Robotics modem by dialing into a Cisco location that supports V.92, the “modem on hold” feature worked less than half the time. I was often disconnected when I tried to pause my modem connection. A feature that maximizes upload speeds to 48 kbps isn’t implemented. One bright spot: It took only about half the usual time to negotiate a connection.

Cisco says its ISP customers are still testing beta software, and it plans to deliver final code in June. Lucent is further along in V.92 deployment, and shipped final code to its ISP customers earlier in April. But beta testers at who used Zoom’s V.92 modems to connect to Lucent’s equipment reported similar snags to mine.

Replacing an otherwise satisfactory V.90 modem with a V.92 model is still a premature move. But if you’re shopping for a new modem anyway, buying a V.92 model could be a wise investment: By fall, network infrastructures will slowly catch up, and your ISP may eventually offer a V.92 line for you to dial into. If it does, you’ll be ready.