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Modem Problems

Although the number of people using fast DSL, cable, and satellite broadband connections continues to increase, many Mac users get onto the Web the old-fashioned way: by modem. Here are some common modem problems and their solutions.

No Connection

I'm afraid that I have to ask again: Is it plugged in? Be sure that the plug on both ends of the phone cord is seated properly. Also make sure that your Mac is plugged into a functioning phone jack. To test it, just plug a phone into the jack and listen for a dial tone.

If everything appears to be connected properly, open the Modem control panel and see to it that your modem is selected in the Connect Via pop-up menu and that the kind of modem you use appears in the Modem pop-up menu. Now open the Remote Access control panel, and check it for correct settings (that a phone number is entered, for example). Finally, open the TCP/IP control panel, and double-check that PPP (or some AOL connection protocol, if you use AOL) is selected in the Connect Via pop-up menu.

Also, it's slightly possible that someone switched off your modem's sound in the Modem control panel. The modem may be working perfectly, but you're missing its usual squawk.

In Mac OS X, launch the Network system preference and select Internal Modem from the Show pop-up menu. Double-check your connection settings in the TCP/IP, PPP, and Modem windows—information such as your ISP's domain name server addresses are found in the TCP/IP area, your ISP's phone number is entered in the PPP area, and you select modem scripts from the Modem pop-up menu in the Modem area of the Network window.

Slow and Dropped Connections

Modems try their very best to move data to and from your Mac as cleanly as possible. If the connection over the phone line is noisy, the modem may have to resend or re-retrieve data for it to go through in an uncorrupted state. This operation certainly can slow your modem. Worst case, the phone line may be so noisy that the modem can't maintain the connection at all.

As much as I'd like to blame the phone company for such noisy connections, you may be doing things to increase line noise. If you have your modem plugged into a fax or answering machine, for example, you're likely to have a noisier connection. Likewise, if you have a very long phone cord running from your Mac to the wall jack or a phone cord draped over some electrical cords or appliances, your line may be increasing line noise. The best way to protect yourself from such internal line noise is to use as short a phone cord as possible and run it directly into the phone jack.

OK, now I'll talk about the phone company. The phone company is responsible only for delivering connections clear enough for conversation. In other words, that slight crackling you hear that plays merry heck with your modem calls is perfectly okey-dokey with the phone company because it doesn't interfere with your voice calls.

If you call the phone company and complain that your modem is slow or your data calls end abruptly, the person you speak with will sympathize politely and just as politely tell you to go soak your head. For this reason, if you suspect that external line noise is the problem, call the phone company and tell them you're having a problem with your voice calls. That's something they'll deal with.

But even a thorough inspection of your phone lines may do no good. Some phone lines just can't support data calls faster than about 24 Kbps. When I moved to the country recently, I was dismayed to discover that I rarely connected at over 19 Kbps. I asked around the neighborhood, and sure enough, everyone in the area had the same problem. As Bruce Hornsby taught us lo those many years ago, “That's just the way it is.”

There Are No Modem Miracles

A couple of products on the market claim to increase modem speed through the use of “optimized” modem scripts. Don't be fooled by such spurious claims.

Oh, these products appear to work because through some clever programming, these modem scripts can force Remote Access to report serial-port speed (a much higher number) rather than the connect speed you're accustomed to seeing displayed. But it's a placebo. You see this higher number and naturally assume that the modem connection is faster.

Macworld tested a collection of these scripts in a controlled environment and found such claims of increased speed to be pure hokum. The scripts were no faster than the scripts that ship with the Mac OS and in some cases were actually slower.

Buyer beware!

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