Refresher: What is a modem?

  • The modem takes your data, packs it and unpacks it
  • Most essential part of a broadband connection
  • Which ISPs provide a free modem?

The word modem, for many people recalls the screechy plastic boxes made by firms like US Robotics that were in use in the Dial-Up age, c. 1997. These sturdy little units could deliver Yahoo, Geocities and Hotmail at the blinding fast speed of 56 kilobits per second (but usually 32 kbps to keep more stable).

For a guide on how to configure an old modem with a new provider click here

dialup modem

Blergh

Now that broadband connections (speeds over 256 kbps) account for 98% of connections, we have gotten used to forgetting about the modem. With broadband being always on and running quietly in a corner with no whistles and screeches, many of us have forgotten that the modem is even there. Wi-Fi, which creates a wireless link between your computer and your modem, has further relegated the modem to a forgotten corner. And newer devices like iPads and smartphones, which seem like a world away from what came before, have made us think that the world is indeed wireless, with the internet coming from ‘somewhere else’ to deliver YouTube, Facebook and Google magically to our gadgets. But of course the modem is the only real necessary gadget to get us an internet connection in our homes: it’s the thing that does internet.

 

What is a modem?

modem

Technicolor 587NV3, for use with BigPond ADSL2+

The word modem is shorthand for Modulator/Demodulator. In the most basic possible terms, this machine turns the digital data on one computer, into an electrical signal to be sent over a copper line (or a light signal over a fibre optic line), and then the modem on the other end repackages that into digital data for another computer to read. In other words, it takes YouTube videos, makes them electrical pulses, and then on the other end, unpacks them back into YouTube videos.

The modem we used back in the 90’s coded that message in screechy sounds, because the means of transportation was an actual telephone call, which operates in audio waves (what’s known as ‘voiceband’).

Think of it like this: each picture, word, video and other bit of information on the web can be expressed as ON and OFF in a series. Just like morse code: but instead of DOT DOT DASH DOT meaning the letter F, it might be ON ON OFF ON (or 1101).

A voice call operates at a speed of 4000 ‘pulses’ per second (called oscillations). So a voice call can send 4000 bits of data per second, which eventually was refined to 56000 bits per second (the famous ‘56K’). That’s about as fast as sound can be expressed over a line.

But electrical signals by themselves can go much faster. Right now, the maximum in use is ADSL2+, which can get as high as 24 Million bits per second. Over short distances and using several lines, speeds can be much, much faster. And fibre optic lines, which use light instead of electricity, can do 1 Billion bits per second easily, and many magnitudes greater in perfect lab conditions.

So the modem is a pretty simple device; it acts like a freeway on and off ramp, taking the random chaos of traffic and packing it into a simple, manageable stream of cars to enter a high speed motorway; and then on the other end, turning that back into a manageable stream of cars getting off the motorway. These little similes aren’t just for fun; there are real comparisons to be drawn.

What do they look like?

modems

Modems can take several different forms for consumer use, ranging from units the size of a paperback, to tiny components in a USB stick or mobile phone. But they all perform roughly the same function.

A modem used for a fixed line connection (copper telephone line, fibre optic line, copper cable) is larger and requires AC power. Nowadays, most modems will have a Wi-Fi router built in, so that you don’t have to buy a separate unit to distribute your connection wirelessly throughout the home.

Common brands include

ADSL

  • Netgear
  • Netcomm
  • Belkin
  • Thomson/Technicolor
  • DLINK
  • Linksys
  • Billion


Cable

  • Siemens
  • Motorola


Mobile

  • ZTE
  • Huawei



More complex setups will include ports for IP telephone systems (where the call is placed over the net, rather than through a traditional telephone network) and hard drives that can share data over a network.

Mobile Broadband Modems

mobile wifi  usb dongle modem

Mobile Broadband is a blanket term for any internet connection made over a radio network. This is known by a couple of names:

3G – this refers to mobile broadband data being the third major generation of mobile communications. Mobile telephony would be 1G; mobile simple data being the second (including text messaging, picture messaging, WAP and other simple data protocols). 3G represents full connectivity to the web over a high speed, constant connection.

4G – the latest iteration refers to vastly faster standards for mobile broadband that reach and even exceed many fixed-line solutions. Because it’s more of an evolution of 3G than an entirely new paradigm, many refer to it as LTE, for Long Term Evolution.

A mobile broadband modem can take a number of forms. It can be

An air card (mostly obsolete)

A USB connected ‘dongle’(very common, but being phased out)

A pocket Wi-Fi modem (increasingly common)

An AC powered unit (for connections that require greater signal amplification, and wider wireless networking)

Inside smartphones and tablets, the modem is housed inside the unit as part of the motherboard. But all of these units will have a slot for a SIM card, just like all mobile phones have always had – this is to identify you to the mobile network as a paying customer.

iphone 5 chipset

 

Does a modem come standard as part of my service?

In the Dial-Up days, service providers rarely provided the modem as part of the service. It was something you bought at Dick Smith. When broadband came along, the first popular services were provided by Telstra and Optus, as Cable services. Cable modems are harder to build, and are generally very expensive. They were provided as part of the service and generally remained the property of the service provider, like a Foxtel set top unit.

With ADSL, modems were generally provided as part of a two year contract. DSL modems are easier to build and clone, so there were (and are) many cheaper brands.

In recent years, demand for short contracts has outstripped demands for free equipment, largely because people already have a modem from a previous connection or know to pick one up cheap from friends or pawn shops.  As such, most providers don’t provide a free modem on anything less than a 24 month contract. But with so many modems built on similar hardware and principles, most technical support teams are cross trained across most major brands.

Secondhand, modems are really quite commonplace –they usually go for $20 on eBay and the like. Brand new, they can cost between $50 and $300, depending on the brand and the extra features (like Wi-Fi, hard drive and phone inputs, Smart TV software, etc).

For mobile broadband, each network has generally had modems specifically designed for their service, so they generally provide a modem. Though with mobile broadband being about 5 years old, there are now plenty of providers who just provide a SIM card and ask that customers BYO modem.

ISPs who provide a free modem

Some ISPs provide a free modem as sweeteners for longer contracts, and also to make sure most users are using standardized hardware that’s easier to troubleshoot.

MyNetFone – 1300 421 046 Modem is free on a 12 month contract (+$12.95 delivery fee) for plans $50 and higher. The modem supplied is a Billion BiPAC 7401VGP-R3 Wireless VoIP router. Excellent model, easy to use and very durable. RRP $120. The modem is VoIP capable.

Optus – 1300 137 897. Modem is free on most connections, which are 24 months by default. The modem provided is a Netgear DG834GU v5, which comes with a USB input for easy content sharing over your home network. RRP $120.

Vodafone (1300 106 571) provides a free Pocket Wi-Fi modem with most mobile broadband, the Huawei E585. This unit is used by Dodo, Club Telco and many others, and is more of a ‘does the job’ sort of unit. But for ad-hoc connections while travelling, it’s your best option – especially with its long battery life.

For more details on plans and offers, please call us on 1300 106 571!