Why you may not get 56k

For all the buzz about how 56k will change your life, a lot can go wrong. Even the technology's name is little more than wishful thinking: you won't achieve 56 kbps, even under the best conditions, for technological and bureaucratic reasons. To help you understand why, we've assembled a list of all the potential barriers between you and that magic number. To understand some of these roadblocks, however, you need a handle on how 56k technology actually works.

Roadblocks on the way to 56k
Both 56k specifications used today take 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 35 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? Anything that adds noise to the telephone line 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 FCC says "no more than 53 kbps"
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). The reason for that regulation? 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 cap 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 this year to enable true 56-kbps modem connections.

Office PBX systems
If you have to dial 9 to get an outside line, your office uses a digital PBX 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 analog lines
Digital lines usually 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). In our testing, we injected white noise called intermodulation distortion, which is similar to what you might encounter over analog lines.

Central office switch-ups
Connections between local central-office 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. (One such problem switch is the AT&T 1AESS. However, the AT&T 5ESS and the Northern Telecom DMS-100/500 switches should both work fine.)

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.

Trouble in the office-to-home commute
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. In our tests, we introduced digital pad impairments to see how each 56-kbps modem handled them; for the most part, the products did not find them too bothersome.

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. During testing we also tested a long local loop containing a load coil. Though many of the products fell back to 28-kbps rates, others handled this impairment without great performance loss.

Connect for success
Your Internet service provider must have a fully digital connection to the telephone company's central office for 56k technology to work. This means that the ISP must have either ISDN or a T1 or T3 line. ISDN is guaranteed to be digitally terminated, but T1 lines can be broken out into 24 separate analog lines. This setup requires an analog-to-digital conversion at the ISP's end and will prevent you from getting 56k speeds.

In the case of 56k technology, ISDN has another advantage over T1. ISDN generally uses out-of-band signaling, in which a separate channel is used to synchronize the flow of data and set up the call, thereby freeing the line's entire bandwidth for sending data. T1 lines use what is known as robbed-bit signaling. In that method, a bit of the incoming data is stripped off to indicate the status of an incoming or outgoing call and to synchronize the data flow, slightly reducing your maximum throughput.