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Galaxynet :: I can't connect at 56k

Many situations can render 56-kbps technology useless--and none can be foreseen until you try it out. It's even possible that your next-door neighbor gets 56k rates while you're stuck with the 35-kbps analog limit. Which central office you get routed to and the quality of your phone lines will greatly affect how well 56k will work for you. The following information will explain how 56k technology works and what could go wrong, preventing you from seeing faster speeds.

56k "Techno-babble" Simplified

The 56k v.90 specification takes advantage of nuances in the way the phone system is designed. In a standard call between two modems, your data must be translated into analog "tones" before it can be transmitted across the telephone network. This translation is called the digital-to-analog conversion. Once your data reaches a telephone company's central office, it's translated back to digital form by a coder/decoder (codec) for transmission across the phone company's digital backbone. Unfortunately, because the telephone network contains some random noise, the analog-to-digital conversion is only an approximation of the original digital signal. To ensure that data remains readable despite the effects of this quantization noise, transmission rates are currently limited to about 53 kbps.

However, because most Internet service providers (ISPs) connect directly to the phone company's digital backbone using routers, data coming from an ISP never need undergo an analog-to-digital conversion. Instead, the data can be encoded (using pulse code modulation or PCM) so that it remains entirely digital until it gets to the central office. Once it arrives, the data is put through a digital-to-analog conversion before being sent across the analog phone lines to your modem. And, because digital-to-analog conversions aren't affected by quantization noise, the result--in theory, at least--is throughput as high as 56 kbps from the ISP to you.

The bad news is, anything that adds noise to the telephone line (such as caller-ID boxes, answering machines, and cordless phones) or causes an analog-to-digital conversion between your ISP and your modem lessens the transmission's performance. Worse than that, if there's nasty noise on the phone line, your only solution may be to move. Scream all you want, but the telephone company is obligated only to provide you with a clean enough line to get 4,800-bps data rates. But those aren't your only potential troubles.

The Communication Cops Set The Speed Limit

Though your modem says it's "56k," you won't get throughput that fast, thanks to a speed limit set by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Sending a signal down a telephone wire requires electrical power. But the more power you apply, the greater the chance of a problem called "crosstalk". You've encountered this annoyance if you've ever heard other people's conversation during a phone call. To help prevent crosstalk, the FCC limits the amount of power that phone companies can use to send signals over the network. And this limit on signal strength limits data throughput to a maximum of 53 kbps, regardless of what your modem can actually deliver. The FCC is currently reviewing this ruling and may overturn it later to enable true 56-kbps modem connections... but don't hold your breath.

Office PBX systems

If you have to dial 9 to get an outside line, your office uses a digital PBX, or Private Branch Exchange, telephone system, which means you also won't be able to achieve 56k rates. A PBX system incorporates a codec that performs an analog-to-digital conversion so that your calls can be stored digitally on magnetic media, such as hard disks. Though this system gives you some great features, such as employee extensions and call forwarding, it also limits your 56k calls to a maximum throughput of about 35 kbps.

Noisy POTS

No, we're not talking about cookware. Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) is supplied to your house via analog copper wires. Digital lines don't suffer from noise problems, but the analog wires between the phone company's central office and your home are a different story. If you hear buzzing or static when you listen through your phone's headset, chances are you won't be able to achieve optimum modem speed. Caller ID, answering machines, and cordless phones can add even more noise to your line. To minimize the hum try disconnecting these types of devices one by one and listening again to determine which, if any, are the source of the problem. If this doesn't work, your line noise may be caused by nearby power lines or other environmental or structural factors. In that case, call the phone company and complain (good luck).

The Central Office Switches

Connections between local central office (CO) switches can sometimes be a problem. Old equipment may require analog termination, resulting in an analog-to-digital conversion as the call goes through to the next switch. If a local call to your Internet service provider gets routed through these "partially analog" switches, you'll lose 56k capability. If that happens, the telephone company may be able to tell you which type of switches your call gets routed through on the way to your ISP.

When you make a long-distance call, you can be sure it's traveling only through digital switches. The long-distance network in the United States is, thankfully, a fully digital system. Transcontinental calls, however, use digital ADPCM encoding for voice compression, which doesn't work with 56k PCM encoding. So you won't be able to get the higher throughput rates when calling another continent (just in case you were thinking of calling Germany with your modem).

The Phone Line at your House

A number of problems can occur as data makes its way from the local central office to your home. Older telephone lines connect directly to the switch at the central office, and newer lines go through a digital loop carrier (DLC). These devices can combine 96 separate lines into one before they reach the central-office switch. By using DLC, the telephone company doesn't have to bury as much expensive copper wire, which saves money and increases connection reliability. But DLCs can wreak havoc with 56k. If the DLC is digitally connected to the switch, no problem; but if it uses a universal connection, an analog-to-digital conversion will occur, rendering your modem's 56-kbps capabilities useless.

There may also be a "pad" between you and the central office. A pad balances the volume on both ends of the line when you make a call. If the pad occurs before the signal is converted to analog, you'll see only a slight degradation in 56k performance. But if you encounter an analog pad between the central office and your home, up crops another analog-to-digital conversion to sabotage your 56k connection.

Some local lines also run through an amplifier called a "load coil" to boost the signal rates across longer distances. Load coils cause some signal distortion and will detrimentally affect your modem's 56k throughput potential. Many of the current 56k modems on the market will "fall back" to 28-kbps or 31.2-kbps rates when their signal travels through a load coil.

The Battle of the Protocols

On February 5th, 1998, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, announced that a 56k standard had been defined. The ITU called this new standard v.90. This new protocol is what Galaxynet's 56k servers are using. Any ITU v.90 compliant modem should have no trouble connecting to Galaxynet, barring any line condition problems as mentioned above.

Before February of 1998 (and a even a little after), there were two standards offered by two different chip manufacturers. Rockwell developed the K56flex protocol, and 3Com/USRobotics developed the X2 protocol. Faster speeds were available over the 33.6-kbps modems, but the two protocols were incompatible. This meant that only a K56flex modem could connect to a K56flex server, and an X2 modem could only connect to an X2 server. If you had one protocol in your modem, and your ISP has the other protocol, you were out of luck, and would only connect at 33.6-kbps or less.

In 1997, the Internet was still on a huge popularity roll. People were buying computers for the sole reason of getting on the Internet. Computer manufacturers put these non-standardized 56k modems in millions of computers, and using the relative speed as a selling point. The only problem with this is the two competing protocols. In 1997, the ITU was still looking at both K56flex and X2, and hadn't adopted a standard protocol. This led to people trying to use their K56flex modem to connect to their X2 ISP, and being disappointed at the results.

If you have one of the old non-standard 56k modems, hope may not be lost. Many of the manufacturers of K56flex and X2 modems offered free "upgrades" or "uptrades" if you bought your 56k modem after a certain date. An upgrade allows you download new firmware which you copy to the ROM chip on or in your modem with a flash program. An uptrade requires you to send the modem back to the manufacturer, and they will send you a newer v.90 modem. Whatever the case, you should check with your modem's manufacturer to see what your upgrade path is.

If you need to know who manufactured your modem and you're running Windows 95 or 98, you can do so through the Modem control panel. While disconnected from the Internet, double-click on My Computer, then double-click on Control Panel. In the Control Panel, find "Modems" and double-click on it. At the top of the Modem Control Panel window, click on the "Diagnostics" tab, select the COMM port your modem is on, and click the "More Info" button. This will display the identification information (ATIx) stored in your modem.