Ionic Column: February 1997
by David Parry
You gentle and hapless readers get an overdose this month if the publisher managed to shoehorn both of my humble contributions into the February issue of Japan's finest computer rag. Elsewhere I have summarized my comments on Windows 3.1 vs. Windows 95, in response to a request for a specific article.
If you feel that I have just stated the obvious and that you could do better — well, I have and you could! It is always nice to see a new byline in the pages of Japan's premier bulletin for bit-twiddlers.
For a long time I could not or dared not log onto the BBS in Tokyo. Once I had overcome the tiny little problem of setting up my telecommunication programs to recognize my new modem, I logged in to all and sundry to enjoy life in the fast lane. It turned out to be a veritable Databahn, as I sped along the German telephones at BMW speeds to a number of local BBS. That's the great thing about BBSs; you can use them for testing your new hardware and not cause any problems.
I managed to establish connections for both modem and ISDN. Modem connections zipped along briskly at twice the speed of the old Intel S/400. ISDN connections were twice as fast and connected almost instantly without the usual modem song.
But it was not yet time to pop the cork on the champagne bottle to celebrate my arrival into the Brave New Information World. Connections to CompuServe had to be made using the 28.8 kbs modem connection, since my particular card could not use the ISDN protocol available so far. The external cards from the same vendor could, and supposedly, so can many of the competing products. But while I felt some irritation at this, I knew that CompuServe would update itself before long and offer more options for fast data transfer. About a month ago a number of nodes in Germany did adopt a faster protocol, so I did some testing on the nearest one (Cologne). It did not seem to be much faster, which confirms that there is a lot of overhead and sticktion within CompuServe itself.
Internet access via CompuServe is slow, although improvements are promised. The local BBS in Düsseldorf had some comments on the speeds of the various Internet Service Providers, and it was clear that they varied greatly in connect speeds, in addition to some hardware compatibility problems with certain makes of ISDN cards. I considered joining T-Online, Telekom's answer to CompuServe, until I was told that T-Online's ISDN access to the Internet was the slowest of all. Make that T-Offline.
Life in the slow lane
Modem transfers outside Europe were another matter. I did not test any BBS in the USA, but modem connections to Japan were slow. This was not the fast lane, this was like driving a Trabi in the slow lane reserved for heavily-laden trucks. "Wot's a Trabi?" husked a voice from the back row. The noble Trabant is a sort of motorized pram from the late and unlamented DDR, equipped with a smoke-breathing two-stroke engine that propels it along at a leisurely pace. I don't think Trabi drivers ever get tickets for speeding, anywhere.
The fiberglass-bodied Trabi is a throwback to the 1950s. I felt I was experiencing flashbacks to the early 1980s as I watched my new modem connect to the TPC BBS at 2400 or even 1200 bps. I may even have got a 14.4 Kbps connect just once, but then I lost the carrier. This was not funny at international rates. I was left wondering if I had to set up the CAPI or FOSSIL drivers with special parameters, but why should it be necessary if the system worked so splendidly within Germany? Evidently the modem slows down to a crawl if the lines are less than optimum, and is far more affected than 14.4 Kbps modems.
A Golden Oldie
Truth be told, the older modems seem to be much easier to set up and to connect. I don't know if the current crop of 28.8 Kbps modems are better, but in the past there were regular laments that Brand X would not connect to Brand Y, and that Brand Z required a Masonic handshake and an arcane initialization string to function at all.
I later saw a German magazine that praised my ELSA ISDN / modem card to the skies, but some of the people I asked were dubious about a combo card that offered both functions.
Just the fax
The next and biggest problem was PC fax. I inquired after a PC fax program in English for Windows 3.1, I looked at German shareware programs, I reinstalled the RVS-COM program supplied by ELSA. RVS-COM looks a powerful program with options for almost any kind of online service or connection, but it was just too overwhelming to set up for simple PC faxing. Furthermore, all I had was a shareware version, and the vendor wanted 590 DM (about US$350!) for the upgrade to the full version. Debating whether it was worth the money, I cruised the ELSA forums on CompuServe and read numerous complaints about RVS-COM, most notably from someone who had ponied up for the upgrade, installed it and deinstalled it. Evidently it was not worth the money. Options? The ISDN version of WinFax was for Windows 95 only — Stalemate.
I was getting desperate by now because I could not send or receive faxes of any kind. The fax machine could not be connected, RVS-COM did not work, and I could not find any other solution. At this point I took stock and decided that I had to start again.
On the Fritz
Selecting a brand that had repeatedly got good reviews, I plumped for the delightfully-named Fritz! ISDN card and an ISDN/analog converter box. Some quick reconnection, enter the correct phone number into the converter box, and the fax machine worked. A bit more work and the S/400 worked again. Well, almost. The modem works just fine at the full speed, but the card refuses to accept incoming PC fax calls. It looks as if I will have to keep the fax machine a bit longer.
Back in business
Incoming modem calls? I have not tested it yet, but it should be OK. Modem calls to Japan? No problem, I am back at 14.4 Kbps. Call it a family saloon speed, as opposed to a BMW for full ISDN, but it's not bad. I am back to uploading and downloading my mail packets in 2-3 minutes. The Fritz! card is still on my desk, hiding under a pile of folders concerning the next translation jobs. I'll install it when my "paying hobby" takes up less of my time. After all, I need to pay off the phone bills and installation charges.
TPC has discussed the question of Internet access several times, and I gather that it is neither as cheap nor as easy as many people think. The main issue is that it could only be done on a paid basis to prevent heavy users hogging the bandwidth, and the costs would rise due to the need for more and faster lines. From my point of view, accessing the TPC BBS through the Internet would be fantastic, but I would settle for connecting to an ISDN line if TPC got one. That would cut my file transfer times, although the overall log-in times are determined by the speed of the PC running the BBS.
Many of my comments are not applicable to Japan, of course. I assume that you have to use ISDN cards or adapters approved for Japan, ones that I have no experience of. But I think you will still run into the following problems:
In brief, old communications programs do not work because an ISDN system communicates in a different way. The FOSSIL driver emulates AT commands from your modem, and the CAPI driver is the actual PC hardware-telephone line interface. ELSA included DOS and Windows versions of Telix that work with interrupt 14 (IRQ 14), and which could be configured very easily for ELSA ISDN devices. I upgraded my copy of HyperAccess for Windows to a newer one that handled IRQ 14, but found that it was only really set up to handle the Motorola BitSurfr Pro. The telephonic world revolves around North America, of course.
One good reason for using ISDN is the Web. Although Internet access can be very slow due to the sheer volume of traffic, I will hold off looking at Web pages until I have the Fritz! card set up to give me ISDN access. Despite the problems, I will stay with ISDN. It really is great when it works properly.
Finally, a look ahead to next month. The section on cyber-porn had to be held over for lack of time, but I hope to include it in the next Ionic Column. I just knew you all preferred to read about the thrills of ISDN instead of boring old sex.
Comments or feedback or more information? (But no kiddy-porn.) Contact me on CompuServe on 100575,2573.
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