The march of personal computer technology continues apace, with new and cheaper systems arriving all the time, sporting ever-faster processors and increasingly massive hard disks. But there is one area where the technology seems to be stuck, with no clear path to the future, and that is modem transmission.

Last year, the big players in the modem business agreed on a new standard for data transfer over ordinary phone lines at what the companies advertise as 56K that is roughly 56,000 bits per second. In fact, current government regulations do not permit transmission at this speed, limiting the speed to a maximum of 53,000 bits per second. What's more, few modems can achieve, or even closely approach this speed. The average home user is lucky to connect at 44,000 bits per second.

This new standard for 56K transmission is called V.90. It ends the competition between two companies, Rockwell and 3Com. Rockwell developed a 56K transfer method called K56, and 3Com's U.S. Robotics had come out with X2 (which stands for "times two," the earlier standard of 28.8K). This resulted in much confusion, with some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) either using one standard or the other, or being forced to shell out for dual technology in order to support both. The emergence of the V.90 standard for all modem makers ended all that.

V.90 transmission is a testament to the ingenuity of the personal computer industry. Here's how it works.

Previous transfer methods assumed that data moved both from and to your computer as an analog signal, which is the only kind of signal your standard telephone line can handle. Because computer data is in digital form, the job of the modem was to translate data being sent from your computer into analog form for transmission, and to convert the analog signal your computer received over the phone line into digital form. This process is called "modulating" and "demodulating," hence the term "modem."

Moving data in this way across the Internet could reach a maximum speed of about 33,000 bits per second (33.6K). But somebody realized that while your connection to your central telephone network might be analog, once data got past there and was on its way across the Internet, it would travel over much more advanced and faster digital lines.

So the new V.90 standard assumes that the only portion of the trip your data makes over ordinary, analog lines is the trip to and from your local phone system. It allows your data to move across the rest of its journey at much faster speeds. The effect is a little like a journey from your house over slow city streets that speeds up dramatically once you get on the nearest Interstate highway. While you still leave and arrive in your neighborhood at the same slower speed, the overall time of your trip is cut sharply.

The result is about a 50 percent average increase in Internet travel over what you could manage with your old 28.8K modem. But as anyone who has surfed the Web over a direct network connection can tell you, V.90 transmission is nowhere near as fast as a network connection. When the traffic on the Internet is heavy, modem travel on the Web slows to a crawl. The problem is that V.90 appears to be the absolute outer limit of what can be achieved using the standard copper phone lines that reach most homes and offices.

In the meantime, the explosion of the Web, with ever larger and more elaborate sites requiring the transfer of ever more data for display on your computer, continues. Clearly some new breakthrough is needed, and the most likely next standard will be an ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line.

An ISDN connection can more than double your transmission speeds and allow you to accommodate two phone numbers on a single line. It is available now in many areas, and can tap into nearly all ISPs. But it will require you to scrap your modem in favor of an ISDN modem (or router), and you'll probably also need some rewiring inside your home or office.

There will be an initial connect charge, probably in excess of $100. Add that to the probable ISDN modem price of about $250, and the additional monthly charge of anywhere from about $25 to $300 depending on which ISDN features you want, and you are talking about an upgrade that will cost nearly as much as your computer itself. You may want to stay in the slow lane, at least for now.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at and Brit Hume at

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