Educators Make Faster Connections With Latest Modems and Software

Few people would argue that communication technologies are rapidly changing our ability to visualize, understand and manage our environment. Recently, much attention has focused on the emerging "information superhighway," a national high-speed, high-capacity network to be used for education, research, business and more. Each day, scores of Americans sign up for commercial online services, such as CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy, or connect to the Internet for the first time. And PC manufacturers claim that by the end of 1995, all computers sold will have pre-installed software for connection to the Internet. As a result, modems, which had been around for over a decade without reaching a mass audience, today are a key ingredient in the ongoing communications revolution. This article surveys some of the many modems and communications packages on the market and discusses their potential applications within an educational setting. First, a little background would be helpful. How Modems Work Because much of the existing transmission media -- such as twisted-pair wire and coaxial cable -- support only analog signals, modems are necessary to translate a computer's digital signals into analog when sending data and then to reconvert them upon reception. Though literally hundreds of modems are available, they share many of the same characteristics. In fact, a majority of modems contain the same components produced by a handful of manufacturers, including Rockwell. For example, most internal modems utilize the 16550 UART, whose 16-character buffer enhances high-speed and background performance. But modems are far from identical. Among the variables are speed, compression, error control, fax capability, and internal vs. external—not to mention a myriad of advanced features and price. Probably the most important consideration is a modem's speed, generally measured in the number of bits that can be transmitted per second (bps). Although 1,200 or 2,400 bps modems were common just five years ago, the latest models boast data transmission speeds of 28,800 bps—or even higher with data compression activated. Right now, 14.4 is a widespread standard, although the price difference is so small that many may opt for 28.8 models. Major online services and bulletin board systems (BBSs) now offer 14.4 connection. Therefore, a 14.4 Kbps modem should suffice in most situations. Besides, 28.8 links do work over regular phone lines, but not flawlessly. From A(ccura) to Z(oom) One of the pioneers in the modem industry, Hayes boasts a vast product line that includes three series of 14.4 Kbps modems. The Accura 144 and Optima 144 feature V.42bis data compression as well as V.42 error control. They work over standard dial-up lines (tone or pulse). The Ultra 144 adds connectivity to SNA, X.25 and ISDN networks. Its X.25 PAD supports up to four simultaneous communications sessions over one phone connection. All modems ship with the firm's award-winning Smartcom communications software. Zoom Telephonics offers internal, external and "pocket" 14.4 Kbps modems for IBM-compatible or Macintosh platforms. The VFX 14.4V (external) and VFP 14.4V (internal), for example, exploit enhanced Adaptive Differential Pulse Coded Modulation (ADPCM) coding and decoding for efficient digital storage of voice messages. Optional coder silence deletion and decode silence interpolation significantly increases compression rates. The VFP 14.4V includes Business Audio for storage and replay of Windows WAV files. For presenters or others on the go, PerfectData's EasyModem 144 Lite is a pocket-sized modem that promises all the power of leading desktop models. A 9-volt battery provides over 2.5 hours of continuous operation (or plug in the AC adapter for non-stop operation). An illustrated installation guide will have one up and running in minutes. For Faster Transmission If higher speeds are desired, consider the FastPro from General DataComm, which combines connect speeds of up to 28.8 Kbps with V.42bis compression to achieve an effective throughput of 128 Kbps in asynchronous applications. Temporary LAN-to-LAN links can be routed through the PSTN for backup or economic efficiency. Plus, with a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) in excess of 200,000 hours, the modem is built for years of uninterrupted service under the most demanding conditions. The Bullet 100E by E-Tech Research is a V.34 28.8 external fax/modem that breaks the $500 price barrier. Designed in a sleek package that resembles a portable CD-ROM player, it boasts a menu-driven LCD panel that displays the signal quality, modem settings and data rate. Settings can be changed directly through SmartKeys on the top of the unit. Among its other features are leased-line operation with auto-dial backup-up; caller ID; distinctive ring; and password and callback security. Built-in Flash ROM allows for software upgrades. Besides speed, an advantage of V.34 modems is that they can intelligently adapt to line conditions during a transmission. All modem users benefit from this capability, which reduces their time spent downloading files. For Internet surfers, V.34 makes viable the use of graphical interfaces like MOSAIC and downloading video/audio files. In fact, a faster modem will quickly pay for itself in lower long distance charges. Although compatibility was a problem in the past, several firms now offer modems that adhere to the V.34 standard set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The MultiModemZDX represents Multi-Tech's first series of desktop data/fax modems that comply with the ITU standard. A "Virtual Modem" driver with DTMF detection picks up calls, "listens" for certain tones, and then launches the appropriate datacomm or fax software. Up to seven communications programs can be running in "wait for a call" conditions. The company also announced a 28.8 bps V.34 version of its patent-pending MultiModemPCS Simultaneous Voice and Data (SVD) modem; equipped with a "Talk Anytime" feature, it suits telecommuting, desktop videoconferencing and more. This is but one example of the newest modem breed. The Sportster line of data/fax modems from U.S. Robotics are solid, dependable units, appropriate for educators who lack on-site support and want their modems to work, period. A V.34 model includes the ITU-T V.34 standard for 28.8 Kbps communications. It is also backward-compatible with all other lower-speed protocols. Sportsters come bundled with membership offers from six popular commercial online services plus communications software. Quick installation lets one check e-mail, dial into a BBS or send faxes just minutes after plugging in the phone cords. Also available is the Mac&Fax Sportster model. U.S. Robotics' Courier line of high-speed modems delivers state-of-the-art technology and easy upgradability (via Flash ROM). Universal Connect enables automatic connection with other modems at their highest speeds. This line is a favorite with private BBS sysops nationwide. Finally, ten new V.34 modems from Practical Peripherals provide price/performance solutions for virtually all members of the education community, from IS managers to students who've purchased their first desktop or laptop computer. The Practical PM288HC II internal modem transmits data at 28.8 Kbps, with a maximum throughput of 115,200 bps. For those who require multiple lines for data communications, ProClass rack-mount modems provide an economical and efficient alternative to stacks of traditional stand-alone modems. Highlights are hot swap for easy removal and addition of modems without powering down the chassis, leased-line operation and both synchronous and asynchronous support. Rack enclosures, sold separately, hold eight or 16 modems. PCMCIA Modems A big trend in telecommunications is small size. Initially created for notebook computers, credit-card sized PCMCIA cards lead the portable revolution. Cards exist in myriad combinations, including RAM, hard disks, LAN connectors, data/fax modems, cellular links and more. TDK Systems' DF2814 PCMCIA modem card, for example, uses APT (Advanced Parallel Technology), a high-speed parallel port that delivers increased performance and reliability. It also supports Direct Connect Cellular, meaning it can be directly connected to many popular cellular phones for wireless data/fax transmissions. Because Windows currently only works at 9600, additional driver software or I/O cards (like APT or Hayes ESP) may be required. Another PCMCIA card, Ositech's Jack of Diamonds combines both a high-performance Ethernet network adapter and a high-speed cellular data/fax modem. It offers convenient direct cable connections for modem, cellular or Ethernet 10baseT, without external interface modules. To extend the working time of the laptop's battery, the Jack of Diamonds detects and shuts off power to portions of the card not in use. Digital Capabilities More advanced modems are designed to work specifically with Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) service and Local Area Networks (LANs). For example, Motorola's Hybrid Modem TA 200 combines ISDN/digital data and high-speed analog modem capabilities in a single platform. Hybrid sensing technology automatically switches inbound calls between analog and digital. For outbound calls, the user manually selects whether he or she wants to initiate ISDN or analog transmission. For example, instructors can access online services with a 14.4 Kbps modem connection, then connect to their institution's LAN via ISDN. Shiva offers a range of scalable solutions for dial-in, dial-out and LAN-to-LAN connectivity over analog and digital phone lines. Their LanRover/PLUS line of remote access servers lets one choose any combination of integrated Rockwell modems and high-speed async serial modules. All components are easily managed from a central location. Instead of installing individual phone lines and modems for each workstation, multiple people can use a Shiva remote access server to dial out. Also from Shiva, the NetModem/E consists of a high-speed V.32bis modem, a communications processor and Ethernet interfaces for installation on a network of PCs or Macintoshes running Netware, Windows for Workgroups, or AppleTalk Plus. For larger groups, multiple NetModem/E units may be pooled. Similarly, Xylogics has a family of communication servers that link remote laptops, PCs, and Macintosh computers as well as UNIX workstations and mainframe terminals to the network with both dial-in and dial-out access to the Ethernet backbone. Communicating Under Windows Selecting the right modem is just half the battle; users also need to choose from among dozens of communications packages. Although many modems ship with stripped-down software that can perform basic communications functions, stand-alone software is often required. There are fax programs, basic telecommunications packages (for messages and up/downloading files), remote-access software, and front-end programs for the Internet, AOL, CompuServe, etc. Basic telecom packages will be addressed below. Delrina WinComm PRO is a Windows application that supports all the popular file transfer protocols such as Zmodem, Xmodem, Ymodem, CompuServe B+ and Kermit, plus Hilgraeve's ultra-fast HyperProtocol. The split-screen feature lets one work online while viewing information in the Backscroll Buffer (up to 5,000 lines of previously received information from all sessions). And HyperGuard checks for over 300 common viruses as files are downloaded. The WinComm PRO phonebook includes predefined icons for connecting to eight major online services. Version 1.1 also boasts the Delrina Internet Messenger, an off-line electronic mail package that connects to the Internet through nearly any Internet service provider. A database lists more than 30 such providers, organized by area code. Predefined icons and built-in Internet links are soon to be standard in software packages. On a different track, FutureSoft's DynaComm for Windows is fully compatible with the firm's new Toolkit for Visual Basic. Programmers can now write custom Windows front-ends that access all of DynaComm's powerful script facilities. At the heart of its setup program is the file-by-file selective install feature, which installs any combination of network connectors, emulators and protocols desired. And with version 3.2, Multimedia Extensions read text aloud and play music or other recorded sounds (MIDI or WAV) through a PC's sound board. Users can assign audible prompts to various events, such as the completion of file transfers. Popular with the private BBS crowd, Mustang Software's QmodemPro for Windows includes a built-in utility for viewing GIF graphics files during download, zooming a GIF or BMP file, or marking and copying portions of the picture to the Windows clipboard. Version 1.1 supports more than 30 terminal emulations, including RIPscrip, the emerging graphics standard for BBS systems worldwide. Online with the Mac While the choices for Mac are fewer, plenty of good software exists. Winner of numerous awards, White Knight version 12 sports over 100 enhancements, including a restructured menu bar, full support of PC-ANSI color screens, and a multi-window "virtual memory" text editor. The program ships in both 68K and native PowerMac formats. Its 240+ page manual is written in a colloquial style, containing many step-by-step tutorials for beginners and plenty of "meat" for more advanced users. Thirty user-defined macro keys reduce multiple actions to a single mouseclick or keypress. A highlight of White Knight is its built-in scripting language, which may be used to create automatic log-on and system navigation sequences, customized dialog boxes and more. Plus, onscreen meters display the elapsed time and money spent in the current session. Software Ventures' MicroPhone Pro is another package for Macs. It too sports an easy-to-use scripting language; a macro-maker that records a user's actions; a mini-BBS host mode; and protocols for all computers -- micro to mainframe. With Synergy Solutions' Modem Assist Plus, LAN users without modems can attach to communication servers for outbound sessions; remote users, meanwhile, dial into the server and are routed to any node on the network for inbound sessions. Menus present a list of modems available on the network. Once a selection is made, any communications package can be used to transparently access a shared modem. When all modems are busy, requests are placed in a queue and automatically connected when lines become available. Conferencing permits any number of people to view communication received on a single phone line. On the Edge of Greatness In the coming years, communication technologies are certain to undergo further dramatic changes. Watch for hand-held units that combine fax, voice, data and cellular capabilities. Expect notebooks to play a big role for many users. Some observers predict that pocket-sized devices will allow people to be reached anytime, anywhere through a single phone number. Others are betting that desktop computers will be the core communications device, replacing phones, fax machines and even televisions. In fact, popularized by Compaq's Presario, IBM's Aptiva and Apple's new Macs, major computer makers now integrate telephony capabilities directly into their systems. Also available are add-in cards and external devices -- such as Best Data Products' ACE and AT&T Paradyne's DataPort -- that merge fax, modem, voice and sound technologies. Look for this trend to expand quickly. The possibilities of these technologies for education are limitless. Already, instructors can instantly share information with colleagues across the globe, while students can access current reference materials at the press of a button. Desktop videoconferencing , workgroup computing, and electronic data exchange are just three applications likely to bring academics closer together in the near future.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.