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A modem (modulator-demodulator) is a device that modulates an analog carrier signal to encode digital information, and also demodulates such a carrier signal to decode the transmitted information. The goal is to produce a signal that can be transmitted easily and decoded to reproduce the original digital data. Modems can be used over any means of transmitting analog signals, from driven diodes to radio.

The most familiar example is a voiceband modem that turns the digital 1s and 0s of a personal computer into sounds that can be transmitted over the telephone lines of plain old telephone services (POTS), and once received on the other side, converts those 1s and 0s back into a form used by a USB, Ethernet, serial, or network connection.

Modems are generally classified by the amount of data they can send in a given time, normally measured in bits per second (bit/s, or bps). They can also be classified by Baud, the number of times the modem changes its signal state per second. For example, the ITU V.21 standard used audio frequency-shift keying, aka tones, to carry 300 bit/s using 300 baud, whereas the original ITU V.22 standard allowed 1,200 bit/s with 600 baud using phase-shift keying.

Faster modems are used by Internet users every day, notably cable modems and ADSL modems. In telecommunications, wide-band radio modems transmit repeating frames of data at very high data rates over microwave radio links. Narrow-band radio modem is used for low data rate up to 19.2k mainly for private radio networks. Some microwave modems transmit more than a hundred million bits per second. Optical modem transmit data over optical fibers. Most intercontinental data links now use optical modems transmitting over undersea optical fibers. Optical modems routinely have data rates in excess of a billion (1x109) bits per second. One kilobit per second (kbit/s, kb/s, or kbps) as used in this article means 1,000 bits per second and not 1,024 bits per second. For example, a 56k modem can transfer data at up to 56,000 bit/s (7 kB/s) over the phone line.

In the summer of 1960, the name Data-Phone was introduced to replace the earlier term digital subset. The 202 Data-Phone was a half-duplex asynchronous service that was marketed extensively in late 1960. In 1962, the 201A and 201B Data-Phones were introduced. They were synchronous modems using two-bit-per-baud phase-shift keying (PSK). The 201A operated half-duplex at 2,000 bit/s over normal phone lines, while the 201B provided full duplex 2,400 bit/s service on four-wire leased lines, the send and receive channels running on their own set of two wires each.

The famous Bell 103A dataset standard was also introduced by Bell Labs in 1962. It provided full-duplex service at 300 baud over normal phone lines. Frequency-shift keying was used with the call originator transmitting at 1,070 or 1,270 Hz and the answering modem transmitting at 2,025 or 2,225 Hz. The readily available 103A2 gave an important boost to the use of remote low-speed terminals such as the KSR33, the ASR33, and the IBM 2741. AT&T reduced modem costs by introducing the originate-only 113D and the answer-only 113B/C modems.

The Carterfone decision

The Novation CAT acoustically coupled modem
For many years, the Bell System (AT&T) maintained a monopoly in the United States on the use of its phone lines, allowing only Bell-supplied devices to be attached to its network. Before 1968, AT&T maintained a monopoly on what devices could be electrically connected to its phone lines. This led to a market for 103A-compatible modems that were mechanically connected to the phone, through the handset, known as acoustically coupled modems. Particularly common models from the 1970s were the Novation CAT and the Anderson-Jacobson, spun off from an in-house project at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratorymarker. Hush-a-Phone v. FCC was a seminal ruling in United Statesmarker telecommunications law decided by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals on November 8, 1956. The District Court found that it was within the FCC's authority to regulate the terms of use of AT&T's equipment. Subsequently, the FCC examiner found that as long as the device was not physically attached it would not threaten to degenerate the system. Later, in the Carterfone decision of 1968, the FCC passed a rule setting stringent AT&T-designed tests for electronically coupling a device to the phone lines. AT&T made these tests complex and expensive, so acoustically coupled modems remained common into the early 1980s.

In December 1972, Vadic introduced the VA3400. This device was remarkable because it provided full duplex operation at 1,200 bit/s over the dial network, using methods similar to those of the 103A in that it used different frequency bands for transmit and receive. In November 1976, AT&T introduced the 212A modem to compete with Vadic. It was similar in design to Vadic's model, but used the lower frequency set for transmission. It was also possible to use the 212A with a 103A modem at 300 bit/s. According to Vadic, the change in frequency assignments made the 212 intentionally incompatible with acoustic coupling, thereby locking out many potential modem manufacturers. In 1977, Vadic responded with the VA3467 triple modem, an answer-only modem sold to computer center operators that supported Vadic's 1,200-bit/s mode, AT&T's 212A mode, and 103A operation.

The Smartmodem and the rise of BBSes

The next major advance in modems was the Smartmodem, introduced in 1981 by Hayes Communications. The Smartmodem was an otherwise standard 103A 300-bit/s modem, but was attached to a small controller that let the computer send commands to it and enable it to operate the phone line. The command set included instructions for picking up and hanging up the phone, dialing numbers, and answering calls. The basic Hayes command set remains the basis for computer control of most modern modems.

Prior to the Hayes Smartmodem, dial-up modems almost universally required a two-step process to activate a connection: first, the user had to manually dial the remote number on a standard phone handset, and then secondly, plug the handset into an acoustic coupler. Hardware add-ons, known simply as dialers, were used in special circumstances, and generally operated by emulating someone dialing a handset.

With the Smartmodem, the computer could dial the phone directly by sending the modem a command, thus eliminating the need for an associated phone instrument for dialing and the need for an acoustic coupler. The Smartmodem instead plugged directly into the phone line. This greatly simplified setup and operation. Terminal programs that maintained lists of phone numbers and sent the dialing commands became common.

The Smartmodem and its clones also aided the spread of bulletin board systems (BBSs). Modems had previously been typically either the call-only, acoustically coupled models used on the client side, or the much more expensive, answer-only models used on the server side. The Smartmodem could operate in either mode depending on the commands sent from the computer. There was now a low-cost server-side modem on the market, and the BBSs flourished.

Almost all modern modems also do double-duty as a fax machine as well. Digital faxes, introduced in the 1980s, are simply a particular image format sent over a high-speed (commonly 14.4 kbit/s) modem. Software running on the host computer can convert any image into fax-format, which can then be sent using the modem. Such software was at one time an add-on, but since has become largely universal.

Softmodem (dumb modem)

A Winmodem or Softmodem is a stripped-down modem that replaces tasks traditionally handled in hardware with software. In this case the modem is a simple digital signal processor designed to create sounds, or voltage variations, on the telephone line. Softmodems are cheaper than traditional modems, since they have fewer hardware components. One downside is that the software generating the modem tones is not simple, and the performance of the computer as a whole often suffers when it is being used. For online gaming this can be a real concern. Another problem is lack of portability such that other OSes (such as Linux) may not have an equivalent driver to operate the modem.

Narrow-band/phone-line dialup modems

A standard modem of today contains two functional parts: an analog section for generating the signals and operating the phone, and a digital section for setup and control. This functionality is actually incorporated into a single chip, but the division remains in theory. In operation the modem can be in one of two modes, data mode in which data is sent to and from the computer over the phone lines, and command mode in which the modem listens to the data from the computer for commands, and carries them out. A typical session consists of powering up the modem (often inside the computer itself) which automatically assumes command mode, then sending it the command for dialing a number. After the connection is established to the remote modem, the modem automatically goes into data mode, and the user can send and receive data. When the user is finished, the escape sequence, "+++" followed by a pause of about a second, is sent to the modem to return it to command mode, and the command ATH to hang up the phone is sent.

The commands themselves are typically from the Hayes command set, although that term is somewhat misleading. The original Hayes commands were useful for 300 bit/s operation only, and then extended for their 1,200 bit/s modems. Faster speeds required new commands, leading to a proliferation of command sets in the early 1990s. Things became considerably more standardized in the second half of the 1990s, when most modems were built from one of a very small number of chipsets. We call this the Hayes command set even today, although it has three or four times the numbers of commands as the actual standard.

Increasing speeds (V.21, V.22, V.22bis)

The 300 bit/s modems used audio frequency-shift keying to send data. In this system the stream of 1s and 0s in computer data is translated into sounds which can be easily sent on the phone lines. In the Bell 103 system the originating modem sends 0s by playing a 1,070 Hz tone, and 1s at 1,270 Hz, with the answering modem putting its 0s on 2,025 Hz and 1s on 2,225 Hz. These frequencies were chosen carefully, they are in the range that suffer minimum distortion on the phone system, and also are not harmonics of each other.

In the 1,200 bit/s and faster systems, phase-shift keying was used. In this system the two tones for any one side of the connection are sent at the similar frequencies as in the 300 bit/s systems, but slightly out of phase. By comparing the phase of the two signals, 1s and 0s could be pulled back out, for instance if the signals were 90 degrees out of phase, this represented two digits, 1, 0, at 180 degrees it was 1, 1. In this way each cycle of the signal represents two digits instead of one. 1,200 bit/s modems were, in effect, 600 symbols per second modems (600 baud modems) with 2 bits per symbol.

Voiceband modems generally remained at 300 and 1,200 bit/s (V.21 and V.22) into the mid 1980s. A V.22bis 2,400-bit/s system similar in concept to the 1,200-bit/s Bell 212 signalling was introduced in the U.S., and a slightly different one in Europe. By the late 1980s, most modems could support all of these standards and 2,400-bit/s operation was becoming common.

For more information on baud rates versus bit rates, see the companion article list of device bandwidths.

Increasing speeds (one-way proprietary standards)

Many other standards were also introduced for special purposes, commonly using a high-speed channel for receiving, and a lower-speed channel for sending. One typical example was used in the French Minitel system, in which the user's terminals spent the majority of their time receiving information. The modem in the Minitel terminal thus operated at 1,200 bit/s for reception, and 75 bit/s for sending commands back to the server.

Three U.S. companies became famous for high-speed versions of the same concept. Telebit introduced its Trailblazer modem in 1984, which used a large number of 36 bit/s channels to send data one-way at rates up to 18,432 bit/s. A single additional channel in the reverse direction allowed the two modems to communicate how much data was waiting at either end of the link, and the modems could change direction on the fly. The Trailblazer modems also supported a feature that allowed them to spoof the UUCP g protocol, commonly used on Unix systems to send e-mail, and thereby speed UUCP up by a tremendous amount. Trailblazers thus became extremely common on Unix systems, and maintained their dominance in this market well into the 1990s.

U.S. Robotics (USR) introduced a similar system, known as HST, although this supplied only 9,600 bit/s (in early versions at least) and provided for a larger backchannel. Rather than offer spoofing, USR instead created a large market among Fidonet users by offering its modems to BBS sysops at a much lower price, resulting in sales to end users who wanted faster file transfers. Hayes was forced to compete, and introduced its own 9,600-bit/s standard, Express 96 (also known as Ping-Pong), which was generally similar to Telebit's PEP. Hayes, however, offered neither protocol spoofing nor sysop discounts, and its high-speed modems remained rare.

4,800 and 9,600 bit/s (V.27ter, V.32)

Echo cancellation was the next major advance in modem design. Local telephone lines use the same wires to send and receive, which results in a small amount of the outgoing signal bouncing back. This signal can confuse the modem. Is the signal it is receiving a data transmission from the remote modem, or its own transmission bouncing back? This was why earlier modems split the signal frequencies into answer and originate; each modem simply didn't listen to its own transmitting frequencies. Even with improvements to the phone system allowing higher speeds, this splitting of available phone signal bandwidth still imposed a half-speed limit on modems.

Echo cancellation got around this problem. Measuring the echo delays and magnitudes allowed the modem to tell if the received signal was from itself or the remote modem, and create an equal and opposite signal to cancel its own. Modems were then able to send over the whole frequency spectrum in both directions at the same time, leading to the development of 4,800 and 9,600 bit/s modems.

Increases in speed have used increasingly complicated communications theory. 1,200 and 2,400 bit/s modems used the phase shift key (PSK) concept. This could transmit two or three bits per symbol. The next major advance encoded four bits into a combination of amplitude and phase, known as Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM). Best visualized as a constellation diagram, the bits are mapped onto points on a graph with the x (real) and y (quadrature) coordinates transmitted over a single carrier.

The new V.27ter and V.32 standards were able to transmit 4 bits per symbol, at a rate of 1,200 or 2,400 baud, giving an effective bit rate of 4,800 or 9,600 bit/s. The carrier frequency was 1,650 Hz. For many years, most engineers considered this rate to be the limit of data communications over telephone networks.

Error correction and compression
Operations at these speeds pushed the limits of the phone lines, resulting in high error rates. This led to the introduction of error-correction systems built into the modems, made most famous with Microcom's MNP systems. A string of MNP standards came out in the 1980s, each increasing the effective data rate by minimizing overhead, from about 75% theoretical maximum in MNP 1, to 95% in MNP 4. The new method called MNP 5 took this a step further, adding data compression to the system, thereby increasing the data rate above the modem's rating. Generally the user could expect an MNP5 modem to transfer at about 130% the normal data rate of the modem. Details of MNP were later released and became popular on a series of 2,400-bit/s modems, and ultimately led to the development of V.42 and V.42bis ITU standards. V.42 and V.42bis were non-compatible with MNP but were similar in concept: Error correction and compression.

Another common feature of these high-speed modems was the concept of fallback, or speed hunting, allowing them to talk to less-capable modems. During the call initiation the modem would play a series of signals into the line and wait for the remote modem to respond to them. They would start at high speeds and progressively get slower and slower until they heard an answer. Thus, two USR modems would be able to connect at 9,600 bit/s, but, when a user with a 2,400-bit/s modem called in, the USR would fallback to the common 2,400-bit/s speed. This would also happen if a V.32 modem and a HST modem were connected. Because they used a different standard at 9,600 bit/s, they would fall back to their highest commonly supported standard at 2,400 bit/s. The same applies to V.32bis and 14,400 bit/s HST modem, which would still be able to communicate with each other at only 2,400 bit/s.

Breaking the 9.6k barrier

In 1980, Gottfried Ungerboeck from IBM Zurich Research Laboratory applied powerful channel coding techniques to search for new ways to increase the speed of modems. His results were astonishing but only conveyed to a few colleagues. Finally in 1982, he agreed to publish what is now a landmark paper in the theory of information coding. By applying powerful parity check coding to the bits in each symbol, and mapping the encoded bits into a two-dimensional diamond pattern, Ungerboeck showed that it was possible to increase the speed by a factor of two with the same error rate. The new technique was called mapping by set partitions (now known as trellis modulation).

Error correcting codes, which encode code words (sets of bits) in such a way that they are far from each other, so that in case of error they are still closest to the original word (and not confused with another) can be thought of as analogous to sphere packing or packing pennies on a surface: the greater two bit sequences are from one another, the easier it is to correct minor errors.

The industry was galvanized into new research and development. More powerful coding techniques were developed, commercial firms rolled out new product lines, and the standards organizations rapidly adopted to new technology. The tipping point occurred with the introduction of the SupraFAXModem 14400 in 1991. Rockwell had introduced a new chipset supporting not only V.32 and MNP, but the newer 14,400 bit/s V.32bis and the higher-compression V.42bis as well, and even included 9,600 bit/s fax capability. Supra, then known primarily for their hard drive systems, used this chipset to build a low-priced 14,400 bit/s modem which cost the same as a 2,400 bit/s modem from a year or two earlier (about US$300). The product was a runaway best-seller, and it was months before the company could keep up with demand.

V.32bis was so successful that the older high-speed standards had little to recommend them. USR fought back with a 16,800 bit/s version of HST, while AT&T introduced a one-off 19,200 bit/s method they referred to as V.32ter (also known as V.32 terbo or tertiary), but neither non-standard modem sold well.

V.34/28.8k and 33.6k
An ISA modem manufactured to conform to the V.34 protocol.
Any interest in these systems was destroyed during the lengthy introduction of the 28,800 bit/s V.34 standard. While waiting, several companies decided to release hardware and introduced modems they referred to as V.FAST. In order to guarantee compatibility with V.34 modems once the standard was ratified (1994), the manufacturers were forced to use more flexible parts, generally a DSP and microcontroller, as opposed to purpose-designed ASIC modem chips.

Today, the ITU standard V.34 represents the culmination of the joint efforts. It employs the most powerful coding techniques including channel encoding and shape encoding. From the mere 4 bits per symbol (9.6 kbit/s), the new standards used the functional equivalent of 6 to 10 bits per symbol, plus increasing baud rates from 2,400 to 3,429, to create 14.4, 28.8, and 33.6 kbit/s modems. This rate is near the theoretical Shannon limit. When calculated, the Shannon capacity of a narrowband line is \scriptstyle Bandwidth * log_2 (1 + P_u/P_n), with \scriptstyle P_u/P_n the signal-to-noise ratio. Narrowband phone lines have a bandwidth from 300-3,100 Hz, so using \scriptstyle P_u/P_n=10,000: capacity is approximately 35 kbit/s.

Without the discovery and eventual application of trellis modulation, maximum telephone rates would have been limited to 3,429 baud * 4 bit/symbol == approximately 14 kbit/s using traditional QAM.

V.61/V.70 Analog/Digital Simultaneous Voice and Data
The V.61 Standard introduced Analog Simultaneous Voice and Data (ASVD). This technology allowed user's of v.61 modems to engage in point-to-point voice conversations with each other while their respective modems communicated.

In 1995, the first DSVD (Digital Simultaneous Voice and Data) modems became available to consumers, and the standard was ratified as v.70 by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 1996.

Two DSVD modems can establish a completely digital link between each other over standard phone lines. Sometimes referred to as "the poor man's ISDN," and employing a similar technology, v.70 compatible modems allow for a maximum speed of 33.6 kbps between peers. By using a majority of the bandwidth for data and reserving part for voice transmission, DSVD modems allow users to pick up a telephone handset interfaced with the modem, and initiate a call to the other peer.

One practical use for this technology was realized by early two player video gamers, who could hold voice communication with each other while in game over the PSTN.

Advocates of DSVD envisioned whiteboard sharing and other practical applications for the standard, however, with advent of cheaper 56kbps analog modems intended for internet connectivity, peer-to-peer data transmission over the PSTN became quickly irrelevant. Also, the standard was never expanded to allow for the making or receiving of arbitrary phone calls while the modem was in use, due to the cost of infrastructure upgrades to telcos, and the advent of ISDN and DSL technologies which effectively accomplished the same goal.

Today, Multi-Tech is the only known company to continue to support a v.70 compatible modem. While their device also offers v.92 at 56kbps, it remains significantly more expensive than comparable modems sans v.70 support.

Using digital lines and PCM (V.90/92)

Modem bank at an ISP.
In the late 1990s Rockwell and U.S. Robotics introduced new technology based upon the digital transmission used in modern telephony networks. The standard digital transmission in modern networks is 64 kbit/s but some networks use a part of the bandwidth for remote office signaling (eg to hang up the phone), limiting the effective rate to 56 kbit/s DS0. This new technology was adopted into ITU standards V.90 and is common in modern computers. The 56 kbit/s rate is only possible from the central office to the user site (downlink) and in the United States, government regulation limits the maximum power output to only 53.3 kbit/s. The uplink (from the user to the central office) still uses V.34 technology at 33.6k.

Later in V.92, the digital PCM technique was applied to increase the upload speed to a maximum of 48 kbit/s, but at the expense of download rates. For example a 48 kbit/s upstream rate would reduce the downstream as low as 40 kbit/s, due to echo on the telephone line. To avoid this problem, V.92 modems offer the option to turn off the digital upstream and instead use a 33.6 kbit/s analog connection, in order to maintain a high digital downstream of 50 kbit/s or higher. (See November and October 2000 update at ) V.92 also adds two other features. The first is the ability for users who have call waiting to put their dial-up Internet connection on hold for extended periods of time while they answer a call. The second feature is the ability to quickly connect to one's ISP. This is achieved by remembering the analog and digital characteristics of the telephone line, and using this saved information to reconnect at a fast pace.

Using compression to exceed 56k

Today's V.42, V.42bis and V.44 standards allow the modem to transmit data faster than its basic rate would imply. For instance, a 53.3 kbit/s connection with V.44 can transmit up to 53.3*6 == 320 kbit/s using pure text. However, the compression ratio tends to vary due to noise on the line, or due to the transfer of already-compressed files (ZIP files, JPEG images, MP3 audio, MPEG video). At some points the modem will be sending compressed files at approximately 50 kbit/s, uncompressed files at 160 kbit/s, and pure text at 320 kbit/s, or any value in between.

In such situations a small amount of memory in the modem, a buffer, is used to hold the data while it is being compressed and sent across the phone line, but in order to prevent overflow of the buffer, it sometimes becomes necessary to tell the computer to pause the datastream. This is accomplished through hardware flow control using extra lines on the modem–computer connection. The computer is then set to supply the modem at some higher rate, such as 320 kbit/s, and the modem will tell the computer when to start or stop sending data.

Compression by the ISP

As telephone-based 56k modems began losing popularity, some Internet Service Providers such as Netzero and Juno started using pre-compression to increase the throughput & maintain their customer base. As example, the Netscape ISP uses a compression program that squeezes images, text, and other objects at the server, just prior to sending them across the phone line. The server-side compression operates much more efficiently than the on-the-fly compression of V.44-enabled modems. Typically website text is compacted to 4% thus increasing effective throughput to approximately 1,300 kbit/s. The accelerator also pre-compresses Flash executables and images to approximately 30% and 12%, respectively.

The drawback of this approach is a loss in quality, where the graphics become heavily compacted and smeared, but the speed is dramatically improved such that web pages load in less than 5 seconds, and the user can manually choose to view the uncompressed images at any time. The ISPs employing this approach advertise it as "DSL speeds over regular phone lines" or simply "high speed dial-up".

List of dialup speeds

Note that the values given are maximum values, and actual values may be slower under certain conditions (for example, noisy phone lines). For a complete list see the companion article list of device bandwidths. Please note baud == symbols per second.

Connection Bitrate (kbit/s)
110 baud Bell 101 modem 0.1
300 baud (Bell 103 or V.21) 0.3
1200 bps (600 baud) (Bell 212A or V.22) 1.2
2400 bps (600 baud) (V.22bis) 2.4
2400 bps (1,200 baud) (V.26bis) 2.4
4800 bps (1,600 baud) (V.27ter) 4.8
9600 bps (2,400 baud) (V.32) 9.6
14.4 kbps (2,400 baud) (V.32bis) 14.4
28.8 kbps (3,200 baud) (V.34) 28.8
33.6 kbps (3,429 baud) (V.34) 33.6
56 kbps (8,000/3,429 baud) (V.90) 56.0/33.6
56 kbps (8,000/8,000 baud) (V.92) 56.0/48.0
Bonding modem (two 56k modems)) (V.92) 112.0/96.0
Hardware compression (variable) (V.90/V.42bis) 56.0-220.0
Hardware compression (variable) (V.92/V.44) 56.0-320.0
Server-side web compression (variable) (Netscape ISP) 100.0-1,000.0

Radio modems

Direct broadcast satellite, WiFi, and mobile phones all use modems to communicate, as do most other wireless services today. Modern telecommunications and data networks also make extensive use of radio modems where long distance data links are required. Such systems are an important part of the PSTN, and are also in common use for high-speed computer network links to outlying areas where fibre is not economical.

Even where a cable is installed, it is often possible to get better performance or make other parts of the system simpler by using radio frequencies and modulation techniques through a cable. Coaxial cable has a very large bandwidth, however signal attenuation becomes a major problem at high data rates if a digital signal is used. By using a modem, a much larger amount of digital data can be transmitted through a single piece of wire. Digital cable television and cable Internet services use radio frequency modems to provide the increasing bandwidth needs of modern households. Using a modem also allows for frequency-division multiple access to be used, making full-duplex digital communication with many users possible using a single wire.

Wireless modems come in a variety of types, bandwidths, and speeds. Wireless modems are often referred to as transparent or smart. They transmit information that is modulated onto a carrier frequency to allow many simultaneous wireless communication links to work simultaneously on different frequencies.

Transparent modems operate in a manner similar to their phone line modem cousins. Typically, they were half duplex, meaning that they could not send and receive data at the same time. Typically transparent modems are polled in a round robin manner to collect small amounts of data from scattered locations that do not have easy access to wired infrastructure. Transparent modems are most commonly used by utility companies for data collection.

Smart modems come with a media access controller inside which prevents random data from colliding and resends data that is not correctly received. Smart modems typically require more bandwidth than transparent modems, and typically achieve higher data rates. The IEEE 802.11 standard defines a short range modulation scheme that is used on a large scale throughout the world.

WiFi and WiMax

Wireless data modem are used in the WiFi and WiMax standards, operating at microwave frequencies.

WiFi is principally used in laptops for Internet connections (wireless access point) and wireless application protocol (WAP).

Mobile modems and routers

Modems which use mobile phone lines (GPRS, UMTS, HSPA, EVDO, WiMax, etc.), are known as Cellular Modems. Cellular modems can be embedded inside a laptop or appliance, or they can be external to it. External cellular modems are datacards and cellular routers. The datacard is a PC card or ExpressCard which slides into a PCMCIA/PC card/ExpressCard slot on a computer. The most famous brand of cellular modem datacards is the AirCard made by Sierra Wireless. (Many people just refer to all makes and models as AirCards, when in fact this is a trademarked brand name.) Nowadays, there are USB cellular modems as well that use a USB port on the laptop instead of a PC card or ExpressCard slot. A cellular router may or may not have an external datacard (AirCard) that slides into it. Most cellular routers do allow such datacards or USB modems, except for the WAAV, Inc. CM3 mobile broadband cellular router. Cellular Routers may not be modems per se, but they contain modems or allow modems to be slid into them. The difference between a cellular router and a cellular modem is that a cellular router normally allows multiple people to connect to it (since it can route, or support multipoint to multipoint connections), while the modem is made for one connection.

Most of the GSM cellular modems come with an integrated SIM cardholder (i.e., Huawei E220, Sierra 881, etc.) The CDMA (EVDO) versions do not use SIM cards, but use Electronic Serial Number (ESN) instead.

The cost of using a cellular modem varies from country to country. Some carriers implement flat rate plans for unlimited data transfers. Some have caps (or maximum limits) on the amount of data that can be transferred per month. Other countries have plans that charge a fixed rate per data transferred—per megabyte or even kilobyte of data downloaded; this tends to add up quickly in today's content-filled world, which is why many people are pushing for flat data rates.

The faster data rates of the newest cellular modem technologies (UMTS, HSPA, EVDO, WiMax) are also considered to be broadband cellular modems and compete with other Broadband modems below.


ADSL modems, a more recent development, are not limited to the telephone's voiceband audio frequencies. Some ADSL modems use coded orthogonal frequency division modulation (DMT).

Cable modems use a range of frequencies originally intended to carry RF television channels. Multiple cable modems attached to a single cable can use the same frequency band, using a low-level media access protocol to allow them to work together within the same channel. Typically, 'up' and 'down' signals are kept separate using frequency division multiple access.

New types of broadband modems are beginning to appear, such as doubleway satellite and power line modems.

Broadband modems should still be classed as modems, since they use complex waveforms to carry digital data. They are more advanced devices than traditional dial-up modems as they are capable of modulating/demodulating hundreds of channels simultaneously.

Many broadband modems include the functions of a router (with Ethernet and WiFi ports) and other features such as DHCP, NAT and firewall features.

When broadband technology was introduced, networking and routers were unfamiliar to consumers. However, many people knew what a modem was as most internet access was through dial-up. Due to this familiarity, companies started selling broadband modems using the familiar term modem rather than vaguer ones like adapter or transceiver.

Many broadband modems must be configured in bridge mode before they can use a router.

Home networking

Although the name modem is seldom used in this case, modems are also used for high-speed home networking applications, specially those using existing home wiring. One example is the standard, developed by ITU-T, which provides a high-speed (up to 1 Gbit/s) Local area network using existing home wiring (power lines, phone lines and coaxial cables). devices use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) to modulate a digital signal for transmission over the wire.

Deep-space telecommunications

Many modern modems have their origin in deep space telecommunications systems of the 1960s.

Differences with deep space telecom modems vs landline modems
  • digital modulation formats that have high doppler immunity are typically used
  • waveform complexity tends to be low, typically binary phase shift keying
  • error correction varies mission to mission, but is typically much stronger than most landline modems

Voice modem

Voice modems are regular modems that are capable of recording or playing audio over the telephone line. They are used for telephony applications. See Voice modem command set for more details on voice modems. This type of modem can be used as FXO card for Private branch exchange systems (compare V.92).


A CEA study in 2006 found that dial-up Internet access is on a notable decline in the U.S. In 2000, dial-up Internet connections accounted for 74% of all U.S. residential Internet connections. The US demographic pattern for (dial-up modem users per capita) has been more or less mirrored in Canada and Australia for the past 20 years.

Dial-up modem use in the US had dropped to 60% by 2003, and in 2006 stood at 36%. Voiceband modems were once the most popular means of Internet access in the U.S., but with the advent of new ways of accessing the Internet, the traditional 56K modem is losing popularity.

See also


External links

Standards organizations and modem protocols

General modem info (drivers, chipsets, etc.)


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