If you use an analog modem to get on the Internet, you need all the speed you can get. Almost 80 percent of U.S. Internet users still use 56-kbps modems that download 50 kbps on a good day.
A new modem standard, V.92, offers the hope of accelerating that slow lane of the Internet. But although V.92 hardware arrived this spring, Internet serve providers and computer manufacturers have been slow to adopt it.
V.92 has four major new features: "Modem on-hold" lets you take an incoming call when you're online, then return to the Internet connection; "quick connect," which should cut in half the time a modem takes to establish a connection; better compression for faster downloads of HTML and text files; and upload speeds of 48 kbps, up from 33.6 kbps in older modems.
But none of those features works unless your Internet service provider upgrades its hardware. So far, only local and regional providers have made a point of supporting V.92.
"We are working with at least 50 local and regional ISPs that have deployed V.92 service across the country. But that is a drop in the bucket until one of the nationals decides to promote it," said Larry Hancock, marketing director at modem manufacturer Zoom Telephonics.
America Online, EarthLink, MSN and AT&T WorldNet have yet to announce V.92 support, but many users have discovered unadvertised V.92 access numbers, as those services' backbone providers upgrade hardware. The Web site Modemsite.com lists Internet service providers that support V.92.
"We constantly get calls from customers that are using V.92 on AOL," Hancock said.
If you bought a computer recently, you may have a V.92 modem and not know it. Many manufacturers include V.92 models, but their Web sites don't always say so. Dell confirmed that it ships V.92 internal modems with its PCs, and Apple provides V.92 modems in all models except Power Mac desktops.
"V.92 has not yet made it to the masses of the end consumer," said Mark Bayliss, owner of Visual Link Internet, a Winchester-based service provider. He said about 5 percent of Visual Link's customers have switched to V.92 since the company adopted the technology two months ago. But he expects V.92 to become popular quickly.
His customers' favorite feature is modem on-hold. "Everyone wants more speed, but modem on-hold saves them money because they don't have to pay for a second phone line," Bayliss said. Customers who had added a data-only line can drop back to a single line, saving about $25 a month.
The new standard has also improved connect speeds, which Bayliss said were "far superior" to V.90 in the company's tests.
To see for ourselves, we compared two external V.92 modems, both under $100 -- a Zoom model 3049 (www.zoom.com) and a U.S. Robotics model 5868 (www.usr.com) -- to a V.90 modem.
The two new modems negotiated faster connection speeds; V.92 seems more tolerant of phone-line eccentricities. Large, text-heavy Web pages typically appeared four to five seconds sooner using the V.92 modems, but there was little difference on graphics-heavy pages.
Modem on-hold popped up an alert window when another call came in (you'll need call waiting and the right software for this to work). With caller ID, you'll also see the caller's number. If you take the call, you can talk from 30 seconds to 16 minutes, depending on how long your ISP lets you put it on hold.
Because we tested over a long-distance connection, the quick-connect feature didn't work in our tests; it only functions over local calls.
We initially had trouble getting online with the U.S. Robotics modem, but a downloadable firmware update solved the problem.
Anyone with a V.92 modem should check its manufacturer's Web site for updates, since most companies are still fine-tuning their implementations of this protocol.