How Modem Technology Has Changed the Way We Communicate

Published: 27th April 2010
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To understand just how much modem technology drove the development of communications, and especially the Internet, it is helpful to have some background. The pieces of the puzzle need some explication before the whole picture comes into focus.

Modem, the word, comes from modulator-demodulator. This device modulates an analog carrier signal for encoding of digital data, and demodulates the signal for decoding the transmission. Although modems can be used with various types of analog transmissions, from what are called driven diodes to old-fashioned radio, the example most people recognize is the voiceband modem. These devices convert the 1s and 0s of digital PCs into sounds sent over telephone lines. After receipt at the other end, another modem converts the 1s and 0s back into the form needed for the connection type (USB, serial, Ethernet or other network type).

The first standard modems were from Bell Labs in 1962, and transmitted a then astonishing 300 bits per second (bps) of data. Today's fastest modems are technically able to transmit 56,000 bps (or 56Kbps), but the built-in limits of the U.S. phone network typically limit modem speeds to 33.6 Kbps or less, in actual use. The term modem also applies to the digital, or broadband, modems, which use much more advanced signal and transmission processes to achieve much greater speed than analog modems on a phone line.

Where modems led

There was something like a perfect storm of variables in the late 1960s, when the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency Networks (ARPA) built a network of computers for ensuring that its military command and control capabilities could withstand a nuclear attack. The idea was that distributing information among geographically separated computers was low-cost security. Work on what was called the ARPAnet led to the creation of the TCP/IP communications standard, the standard that still enables data transfer on today's Internet. After ARPAnet debuted in 1969 it was quickly taken over by civilian computer nerds that worked to perfect a sharing protocol among the few powerful computers in existence at the time.

In fewer than ten years the modem had led to the development of ARPAnet, and the arrival on the scene in the 1980s of one Tim Berners-Lee would create another sea change. Berners-Lee led in developing of the World Wide Web, with a great deal of help from many others, as well as defining hypertext markup language (HTML), hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) and Universal Resource Locators (URLs). Amazingly, all of this activity happened in a very short time, between 1989 and 1991. Berners-Lee is presently the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets the technical standards for Web usage and devices.

Along the way

A number of other events in the early days mapped out the future of the Internet as we are now living it. The first e-mail is credited to Ray Tomlinson, back in late 1971. Tomlinson was a systems engineer for BBN (Bolt Beranek and Newman), a company brought in by the Defense Department to help it build the first, local Internet in 1968. As he experimented with a program he designed called SNDMSG (send message), Tomlinson developed it to the point where he and other network users used it to leave messages for one another. Soon enough he added a file transfer capability that he'd developed (CYPNET) so that it would use SNDMSG to direct electronic messages to any computer on the ARPAnet system.

It was Ray Tomlinson who picked the @ symbol to define for the programs which computer user was located at which computer. He inserted the symbol between the users' names and the name/location of their host computers. The first e-mail, it is said, was actually sent between two computers sitting right next to each other, despite the fact that it was sent over a system that could have transmitted it much farther. Multiple witnesses attest that the very first message was, "QWERTYUIOP," the first line of alphabetic characters on the standard typewriter keyboard.

Where it all took us

Engineer Tomlinson has been quoted as saying that he invented e-mail "because it seemed like a neat idea." No one was asking for e-mail or intercomputer communication, and it didn't catch on immediately. However, in time it did, and changed the world forever. From the invention of the modem through subsequent developments in several technological areas, we have arrived at the point where surfing the Web, sending e-mail and sifting through the accumulated knowledge of the world is taken for granted today.

It may behoove us all to stop and think for a moment of all the engineers, programmers, managers and technicians that contributed to our modern communications and computing systems. If you want to know, in a nutshell, how modem technology has changed the way we communicate, the answer should really be, "Completely!"Metro Hi is a leader in internet fax solutions for any sized business. Less expensive and more reliable than traditional fax services - you'll enjoy the convenience and well as the cost. Visit today at for more information on our small business and corporate fax solutions.

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