Dial-Up Access Getting Faster

V.92 modems

First Published: Washington Post
Date Published: February 23 2001
Copyright © 2001 by Kevin Savetz

A new breed of modem -- referred to by the decidedly unmemorable moniker of "V.92" -- is appearing on computer stores' shelves. It promises to add convenient features and squeeze every last ounce of speed from analog telephone lines. But don't rush to upgrade just yet -- it will be a while before Internet service providers support this new standard.

When they do, you can expect to hear these four V.92 features touted:

(That mysterious V.whatever naming convention originates at the International Telecommunications Union in Switzerland, which coordinates telecommunications networks and services. Protocols whose names start with "V." -- which range from V.1 to V.300 -- set standards for data transfers over the telephone network.)

But, although several modem manufacturers have already released V.92 models, computer users can't enjoy any of the new features until Internet service providers upgrade their equipment to handle the new protocols. Insiders in the modem business expect that the largest ISPs will begin offering national trials of V.92 this summer, while smaller providers may offer V.92 access sooner.

America Online, the biggest online provider of them all, has not yet committed to supporting V.92. "This version of consumer modem is only now arriving in the marketplace," said spokesman Nicholas Graham. "As we did with the V.90 modem, we will thoroughly test and debug V.92 modems at the appropriate time."

Representatives of EarthLink and MSN, the second- and third-largest dial-up providers, offered similar statements. "We'll begin testing V.92 as soon as we feel it's stable and reliable enough to incorporate into our systems," said Kurt Rahn, a spokesman for EarthLink. "At this point, though, we have no immediate plans to support it."

Replacing your current, working 56-kbps modem with a V.92 model would be premature. But if you plan on buying a new modem anyway, it makes sense to buy a V.92-ready model. It will work with today's V.90 standard now, and when your Internet provider supports V.92, you'll have the right hardware.

You may not even have to buy a new modem to enjoy these new features. Some modem manufacturers are planning to release free "flash upgrade" software that will update the internal software, or firmware, of certain models to support V.92. Most older modems aren't upgradable, though, lacking the hardware power to handle the enhanced compression and call-waiting features. Visit your modem manufacturer's Web site to find out if an upgrade will be available for your modem.

The builders of both consumer modems and "head end" equipment -- the communications hardware Internet service providers use -- are still fine-tuning their V.92 software. Many of the new features in V.92 are still being perfected. So even if you buy a new V.92 modem today, be prepared to flash-upgrade the hardware in a few months. This will ensure you are using the latest and (theoretically) greatest firmware.

V.92 modems cost about the same as V.90 units. A search at the Shopper.com price comparison service revealed street prices from $65 and $150.

With the ever-increasing hunger for high-speed Internet access and the decreasing cost of broadband services such as cable modems and DSL, analog modems may be living their twilight years.

"V.92 could be the last great modem standard," said Lesley Kirchman, director of marketing for Actiontec. "Broadband is so much more powerful. We're seeing a huge push to move to it."

On the other hand, not everyone is ready to abandon the good old analog modem. "Things are not necessarily perfect in the broadband environment," said Larry Hancock, marketing director at modem manufacturer Zoom Telephonics. "We have seen a lot of interest in V.92 from the national Internet service providers in the past six months."

Unlike DSL and cable, modems rely on common, inexpensive telephone lines. DSL requires you to live near the phone company's central office, and many cable television providers do not offer Internet access. In comparison, modem-based access is boring and unsexy -- but also cheaper, simpler and a good deal more reliable.

Articles by Kevin Savetz