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posted by martyb on Monday November 20, @11:02PM   Printer-friendly
from the good-question dept.

If you've ever had dialup internet service, or still do, or just know someone that does, you have probably heard terms like "56k modem". "56k" has become almost synonymous with dialup Internet access. But it's such an arbitrary number. It's not divisible by ten, it's not a power of two... so why was it chosen as the fastest dialup speed? For the answer, we will have to travel back in time quite a while.

Our visitors from Google should be warned that this is not a "stripped down" explanation; it is intended for relatively technical readers. But if you really want to know where this magic number comes from, you need to understand some of the technical background. As we shall see, "56k" was not just pulled out of a hat.

[...] Anyone that has ever used a dialup modem knows full well that they don't actually get to connect at that speed, though. And that their connection speed varies each time they dial in. There are two factors at work here.

The first is the FCC. If you are in the United States, the FCC places a restriction on the power output of devices connected to the phone network. The result is that you will never be able to connect at a speed faster than 53.3 kbit/s.

The second is the overall complexity of the phone network. 56 kbit/s (or 53.3 kbit/s) requires very good operating conditions, as it is really operating beyond the paramaters of what the phone network is required to be capable of. Operating at these speeds requires that there only be one ADC between the user and their ISP (which is not guaranteed to be true, but typically is), and that the copper wiring in the user's "local loop" have very good electrical properties. Part of the dialup process that is used to initiate a connection is an evaluation of the overall quality of the connection; if it is determined to be lacking, the modem will automatically drop down to a lower data rate.

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  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 21, @03:03PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 21, @03:03PM (#1333736)

    Go ahead and try it. Grab two V.90/V.92 modems connected to your (whatever local terminal devices') serial ports, connect them together with a phone cord, type ATA on one modem, and ATD on the other and see what it says it connects at. You WILL get a CONNECT 33600/ARQ.

    Note that just using a phone cord to connect two modems probably won't work. You will need to simulate the off hook condition by providing an approximately 20mA current source in series with the phone line (a battery and a resistor in series will do).

    Also ATX3 (I think) to disable dial tone detection on the dialing modem, as you obviously won't have a dial tone in this setup.

    When I tried this myself (with two USR modems) it was a bit finicky, I had to sequence the dial and answer commands properly (sending ATA only after the dialing modem had finished dialing), otherwise the modems ended up just screaming at each other without actually connecting.

    But indeed, you will only ever get 33.6K with two analog modems.

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