Once upon a time, modems were big, clunky units that sat on the edge of your desk and made a grating, scratchy noise every time you tried to connect to the Internet. Fortunately, those modems are all but gone, replaced by smaller, quieter versions and newer technologies. The Internet is now available through a variety of technologies, from traditional dial-up to high-speed cable connections and blazing fast fiber optics, but regardless of how you connect, chances are there is a modem working somewhere to make that connection possible.
Until the early 21st century, dial-up modems were most popular method for connecting to the Internet. Dial-up modems connect to an Internet Service Provider using your existing telephone line. Since telephone lines were designed to transmit the human voice, not electronic data from computers, modems have to convert digital computer signals into a form that allows them to travel over phone lines. Those are the scratchy sounds you hear from a modem's speaker. A modem on the other end of the line understands it and converts the sounds back to digital information that the computer understands.
Most modern modems can send and receive data at a rate of up to 56 Kbps (56,000 bits per second). While significantly faster than modems from two decades ago, they still provide a much slower Internet experience than broadband devices, such as Cable and DSL modems, and are not fast enough to take advantage of the Internet’s growing multimedia content, such as high-quality images, streaming music, and streaming video services. However, simply surfing the web is still possible, albeit frustratingly slow at times.
To compensate for the slower speeds, newer modems feature compression technology, which shrinks the size of web pages before sending them and then decompresses them once they arrive at your computer. Since your computer can decompress much faster than a dial-up modem can download, this can offer noticeable improvements to your viewing speed. Many web browsers also feature tools to speed up webpage load times, many of which involve omitting certain add-ons and multimedia elements, or downloading lower-quality versions of images, since the increasing use of large multi-media files is one of the biggest reasons dial-up has become so slow.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), a high-speed or broadband technology, has become increasingly popular, because they offer always-on connection (no more dialing in or tying up your phone line) and speeds are significantly higher than dial-up connections. DSL speeds are usually measured in terms of megabytes per second, which is one million bits of information every second. Current DSL download speeds typically range from 0.5 Mbps to 15Mbps. Uploads range from 128 Kbps – 1Mbps. However, this is poised to change quickly, as many companies are now looking to build gigabit DSL connections, meaning downloads could reach 1 billion bytes per second in the not-to-distant future.
DSL service requires a digital modem and a network card in your computer (or a wireless router and a wireless network card). Prices for equipment, DSL installation and monthly service vary considerably, so check with your local phone company and Internet service provider.
Over the past decade, cable companies have become the go-to Internet service providers, because their infrastructure is capable of handling significantly more bandwidth than most telephone lines. Cable Internet providers offer download speeds ranging from 1.5 Mbps to 100 Mbps (though this is constantly increasing). Upload speeds typically range from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps. Since cable Internet services can reach such high speeds, they are ideal for viewing graphic-heavy webpages, streaming online music, and even viewing movies and television through services such as Netflix and Hulu.
The speeds you can achieve over a cable Internet connection will depend on your provider’s limitations (rural areas will typically have slower speeds, as older lines are not capable of achieving the highest speeds), the plan you purchase (expect to pay considerably more for the highest speeds), and your cable modem. Older cable modems were limited to 10-20 Mbps; while newer models can easily reach 150 Mbps. If you plan on purchasing your own cable modem, make sure to check with your cable provider to determine which modems will work with your selected plan.
Like DSL, cable modems won’t tie up your phone lines and they are always connected. This service is available throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For an in-depth tutorial, visit How Cable Modems Work.
Fiber Optic Networks
Fiber optic networks are less widespread than DSL or Cable, but where available they offer incredible speeds. Many fiber optic providers offer packages ranging from 50 Mbps to 500 Mbps or more. Unlike other broadband services, which provide significantly higher download speeds than upload speeds, uploads over fiber optic networks are just as fast as downloads.
To access a fiber optic Internet connection, you will usually need to use modems provided by your Internet Service Provider, which can increase your monthly bill by $5 – $10, but it also means your equipment will be replaced for your if it ever needs to be updated.
Making Business Connections
Most businesses require reliable, dedicated Internet connections capable of handling dozens and even hundreds of simultaneously connected devices. Traditional dial-up or even slower-speed DSL services won’t work for most offices. Cable Internet, because it provides and always-on connection and high speeds, can be a good option for many companies. But business that demand significant bandwidth, including companies running their own servers, may require much higher speeds. Business Ethernet services can provide customized solutions for business with speeds ranging from 1-2 Mbps upwards of 1Gbps (1,000 Mbps). The options available to your business will vary largely depending on your location. These services can be significantly more expensive than the other Internet solutions we’ve discussed above, but for companies that need the additional resources, it can be well worth the price.