The Disposable Modem

1998: By now, everyone should realize that the 56k modem is just a flash in the pan.

So were the 33.6k modem, the 28.8k modem, and the rare 19.2k modem. And let’s not forget the 14.4k modem, the 9600 modem, the 2400 modem, the 1200 modem, the 300 modem, and the lowly 110bps modem.

Each pushed the envelope, sometimes beyond what the experts had said was possible (“9600 bps – never gonna happen!” “33.6 is it; modems just can’t go faster.”)

They went faster.

The 56k modem is a hybrid: analog up to 33.6 kbps, digital up to 56 kbps. And the next step is modem bonding, which ties two or more modems together for better throughput. But bonding starts to get impractical when you need more than two modems and two phone lines, so doubling is probably a realistic practical limit.

That gets us to 112 kbps tops.

From there, the choices are all digital (bonded 56k modems are half digital). The parties are lining up with different proposals: ADSL, Consumer DSL, Universal ADSL, MVL, cable, T1 lines, etc. (Don’t worry about the sheer number of options. As always, the consumer will make some of them winners and others losers.)

For most users, the choice will come down to some form of digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable. Then our 56k modems will join the 14.4 and 2400 bps modems in the junk drawer.

Bob Metcalfe points out in InfoWorld (2/9/98) that Microsoft, Intel, and Compaq are backing the wrong DSL standard. You can read the linked article for all the technical details (update: it’s not the original InfoWorld article), but it boils down to Universal DSL being a high frequency, high power solution with serious crosstalk problems. Metcalfe points to Paradyne’s MVL as a much better approach.

The question is, can Paradyne or anyone else combat the Microsoft/Intel/Compaq hype machine?

Maybe.

It looks like @Home may have the resources to do it. As I write this, it appears that AT&T, Time Warner, and TCI may join forces, merging Time Warner’s Road Runner into @Home (see USA Today – another article no longer online). @Home has been busy working with cable providers across the country and building its own high speed “parallel Internet” network to tie everything together at the fastest possible speed.

The war between cable and DSL will become a war between cable companies and phone companies, with local ISPs getting squeezed out or bought out as the analog modem disappears.

That’s the problem with disposable technology. Things change. Quickly. So don’t get too attached to your modem – you’ll probably want to replace it soon.

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