Skip to main content

It's a modem thing

It is alleged that if you record the racket that the modem makes when you log on and replay it backwards, in the way pimply youths listen to Black Sabbath albums, you will hear the name of the Welsh village of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I don't believe this but have mentioned it in order to annoy the sub-editor (thanks Arnold! sub-ed) who is obliged to double-check the spelling of any unusual words.

It's not surprising that the song of the modem bird - as netheads of a poetic bent used to call the noise - should have attracted a few urban myths of its own, and even be held in some degree of affection. It's one of the iconic sounds of our age, universally recognised, a reveille that quickens the pulse as we wait to plunge into cyberspace - or to read an invitation to return again later because the server's busy.

But sadly, the old bird is an endangered species; about to meet the same fate as the dodo and John Cleese's parrot, as the people for whom it sang so faithfully ditch their dial-up connections in favour of broadband.

In the UK, 3.6 million home users have already done so, and with BT's promise to extend the service to 99.6 per cent of the country by next summer, millions more will follow suit. That wouldn't be so bad if broadband users didn't insist on banging on about it to friends, colleagues, fellow guests at dinner parties and the poor souls foolish enough to sit next to them on the bus.

Broadband would be a far more exciting prospect if it wereI well, broader.

A few years ago, when "the information superhighway" was the buzz phrase, I seem to remember being promised that we'd all have 100Mbps (megabits per second) or more pumping through our smart homes. Well, ASDL ain't the superhighway. It's more a cycle lane - and one that costs a small fortune to ride on.

To pay for connection of even 1Mbps, I'd have to give up little luxuries such as food. For about pound;25 a month, Telewest and NTL offer 750Kbps (kilobits per second). But, while I don't mind having to change my email address for the sake of broadband, I draw the line at changing my actual address which I'd have to do to be within reach of cable. Tiscali advertises broadband for about pound;16. But for that I'd get at most a miserable 150Kbps. If that can be described as "broad" so can HRH Elizabeth II's accent and Naomi Campbell's hips.

If, like me, you don't want to waste too much money on ICT and are beyond the reach of cable companies, you'll settle for a 500Kbps connection - that's 10 times the speed of a bog-standard dial-up connection. You'll have to pay pound;20-30 to one of the 50 or so ISPs in this increasingly competitive market. There are links to all of them at

where you can also compare them for reliability, quality of customer support and suchlike.

But you still have to visit the individual ISP sites to check the small print. Does the quoted price include VAT? Are you asked to agree to an annual or monthly contract? Are there any hidden extras? BT Broadband Basic, for example, charges more if you download more than a gigabyte in a month. Look out, too, for special deals on connection charges, modems and microfilters (the gizmos you have to fit on any telephones sharing the line).

So I did my research, chose my provider, set the wheels in motion and mentally prepared myself for the glitches, gremlins, acrimonious phone calls and general Meldrewing which tend to surface on those rare occasions when I put my faith in new technology. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Once the BT techies had got round to doing whatever it was they had to do at my local exchange, it took me less than 15 minutes to get my computer online - most of which was taken up with trying to remove the modem from its cellophane wrapping.

I have to confess that once I'd become a citizen of Broadband Britain - as the Government likes to describe those of us at the cutting edge - I quickly discovered what all the fuss was about. There is a fundamental difference between going online and being online.

When the internet is always at your disposal, you're far more likely to make use of it. And a faster connection makes it that little bit easier to do the things you want to do. To take one example: I doubt if I would have bothered to annoy Online's sub-editors if I hadn't known it would only take me a few seconds to find a site from which to cut 'n' paste the name of that village with the ludicrously long name.

Children with broadband at home will find it just as easy to locate the websites they'll need to help in their studies. And, of course, the big challenge facing teachers is to motivate children to want to use the net in this way - after all, they can't spend all their time scavenging for iffy MP3 files.

Incidentally, I'm still able to hear the song of the modem bird. I downloaded it from It's so easy to do that sort of thing when you have broadband - as I never tire of telling fellow guests at dinner parties and passengers foolish enough to sit next to me on the bus.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you