Upping the Internet Speed Limit

Should you invest in a high-speed modem?
BY STANLEY ZAROWIN

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • FOR THE PAST YEAR, modem makers have been promising to take the creep out of the Internet with their proposed higher speed 56 Kbps models. Their claims have partly come true. While you cant get a full 56 Kbps throughput (the speed at which the data flow), you can get pretty close—but then only in some geographic locations and only when the data flow in one direction: to you from the Internet .
  • WHY IS THIS SUBJECT important to accountants? Because its clear electronic commerce is the wave of the future for business; accountants, like it or not, are going to be expected to understand it, use it and even advise their clients and employers on the subject.
  • KEEP IN MIND THAT DATA-TRANSFER speeds cannot be any faster than the slowest equipment the data move through. As a practical matter, you wont be able to connect to your companys server at the higher speed until that equipment is upgraded to the fast x2 technology.
  • THE OTHER OPTION FOR GETTING MORE Internet speed is by installing an integrated services digital network (ISDN) telephone line in your office, which operates at about four times the speed of a 33.6 Kbps modem.
STANLEY ZAROWIN is a senior editor on the Journal . Mr. Zarowin is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and his views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.


What do you need to be successful on the Internet? It helps to have a fast computer and a good Internet provider. But more than anything else, you need patience—loads of patience. Even the "fast" 33.6 kilobits per second (Kbps) modems (now the standard) trigger finger-drumming frustration as you wait and wait and wait some more while a file downloads at top crawl speed.

For the past year, modem makers have been promising to take the creep out of the Internet with their proposed higher speed 56 Kbps models. They claim the new devices will cut waiting time in half.

Well, their claims have partly come true. While you cant get a full 56 Kbps throughput (the speed at which the data flow), you can get pretty close—but then only in some geographic locations and only when data flow in one direction: to you from the Internet , not to the Internet from you . In the sending mode—to the Internet from you—56 Kbps modems revert to the slower 33.6 Kbps top speed. But since most users download data (take data off the Internet) instead of upload, this is not a serious handicap for them; for others, of course, the 56 Kbps modem is only about half as good as its promoters claim.

Why give so much attention to what appears to be a highly technical, esoteric subject? Because its clear that electronic commerce is the wave of the future for business and accountants, and, like it or not, CPAs are expected to understand it, use it and advise their clients and employers on the subject.


TEST RUNS
A new U.S. Robotics Sportster 56K Faxmodem with x2 eventually reached connection speeds as high as 52 Kbps—but on many occasions as low as 28 Kbps. The x2 expression describes the technology that many modem vendors just started using to get higher performance from their devices.

For the first few weeks, the x2 modem did not achieve any of the speed touted for it when connected to the Internet because none of the Internet providers were ready with 56 Kbps lines. Then, American Online opened a test telephone line just for the high-speed x2 technology and we were able to put the modem to the test. By the time you read this, a half dozen other Internet providers probably will open high-speed phone lines, too.


SPEED BARRIERS
Before you run out and plunk down some $250 for one of the new models, you should know some facts. As important as a modem is for getting high speed, the telephone equipment through which the modem sends and receives signals is equally critical. A law of nature says, in effect, that data cannot flow through a conventional telephone network faster than about 35 Kbps. By using some technical wizardry, the new modems have been able to fool mother nature and squeeze as much as 53 Kbps out of the conventional phone lines.

Keep in mind, however, that data-transfer speeds face another barrier: The data travel at the speed of the slowest equipment that the signals move through, including the modem to which you send your data. If your correspondent has a 33.6 Kbps modem, thats the best speed you can get.

Also, as a practical matter, you wont be able to connect to your companys server at the higher speed until that equipment is upgraded to the fast x2 technology, and its unlikely such an investment will be made quickly. The reason: Theres a competing technology out there, called K56Flex, thats about to be introduced, and the two technologies are not compatible.

Further complicating the situation is yet a third technology on the horizon—one thats being heralded as a standard designed to replace both x2 and K56Flex. Not to be diminished by this threat, developers of both x2 and K56Flex say their modems can be upgraded to the new standard.

The other option for getting more Internet speed is installing in your office an integrated services digital network (ISDN) telephone line, which operates at four times the speed of a 33.6 Kbps modem. (For more on ISDN, see "The Digital Connection," JofA, June96) The problem with ISDN has been price: Not only is the equipment more expensive but so is the monthly phone service; you must use a special digital phone line. However, because of growing popularity and the resulting fierce competitive market, ISDN equipment prices are falling fast. But the service, which must be rented from your telephone utility, is still far more expensive than a regular phone using 56 Kbps technology.

The bottom line question: Should you invest in a 56 Kbps modem now? Or should you go for an ISDN line?

The simple answer is this: If fast, frequent connections to a remote office (client or subsidiary office) are a high priority, an ISDN line probably makes the most economic sense. If your remote connection needs are low priority and only occasional, its worth investing in at least one or two 56 Kbps modems for experimenting even if they fail to zip along at a full 56 Kbps all the time. When the new standard is developed, you can upgrade at little or no cost and in the meantime be able to surf the Net at more than crawl speed.

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