What Is a Modem Speed?

By Adam Parker

Recieve faster downloads with your modem.
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Modem speed is a critical factor in the quality of a user's Internet experience. Technically, it is a measure of how much data can be transferred in a given amount of time. Faster modem speeds not only allow more data transfer, but they also spur on the development of richer Web content. Modem speeds influence the kinds of activities and tasks people engage in on the Internet. Improvement in this area has led to some major technological changes and helped people to connect with others from around the world like never before.


AT&T manufactured the first commercial modem in 1962. This modem transmitted data over phone lines at 300 bps (bits per second). Dial-up modems achieved faster speeds over time and finally reached a maximum speed of 56 kbps (kilobits per second) in 1996. After this, broadband modems were developed. DSL modems used phone lines, but they employed special technology that allowed data transfer on higher frequencies, therefore increasing transfer speeds. Cable modems made use of cable connections to achieve higher speeds.


Faster modem speeds allow for quicker transfer of data. They also make it feasible to transmit more complex forms of data, such as audio and video. As modem speeds have increased over time, people have been able to develop more complex and detailed websites. Online activities such as business and gaming have become more sophisticated as modem speeds have increased.


Dial-up modems are useful primarily for accessing simple, text-based websites. Functionality increases with broadband modems because of the faster speed. Higher speeds allow activities such as audio and video file sharing, online gaming and video conferencing, therefore providing the user with a richer Internet experience.


Different modems are capable of different data transfer speeds. Dial-up modems can reach download speeds of 56 kbps. DSL modems can download at speeds up to 10 mbps (megabits per second). Cable modems can reach a theoretical download speed of 30 mbps, but the actual speed will almost always be lower because bandwidth is shared by other users. In general, upload speeds are slower than download speeds for all of the above modem types.


Many modems have lights that turn on to indicate the modem is functioning properly. Also, while users with dial-up modems have to connect to the Internet, DSL and cable modems have an "always on" connection. Users can also check their current modem speed by logging onto certain websites that run a speed test on the spot.