What is a 56k modem?

When filling in my tax return this week, I noticed HMRC provided download times for slow connections including 56k modem speed (download time 3.4 minutes for a 1340 KB file!).

56k modem speedWhile this made sense to me (I used a 56k modem to connect to the Internet in the 90s), I wondered what younger self-employed (or otherwise tax returners) would make of it – do they know what a 56k modem is? Would they google it?

I thought I’d provide some answers all in one place 🙂 .

What is a 56k modem?

A 56k modem was a tool to connect to the Internet in the late 90s. The biggest modem maker in the world at the time was US Robotics. Below is a photo of a 56k modem – it’s the one I had in fact.

56k modem US Robotics
CC image courtesy of Frédéric BISSON on Flickr

How fast is 56k dial up Internet?

56k dial-up Internet was quite slow. It took AGES to even view images.

I’ve tried finding an example – here’s a simulator that shows you an image being loaded on a 56k connection. I’d say it’s pretty accurate (although images tended to not be that big back then!).

When did the 56k modem come out?

The Internet says that the 56k modem came out in 1998; I’ve found a  story on the Independent from 1997 announcing the imminent arrival of 56k modems:

These new modems certainly sound tempting. They can download data from the Internet at a rate of 56,000 bits per second (56Kbps).

I got mine in 98. I think I had a 33.6k modem for a little while before that (with a 486 computer).

Below is what the Windows 95 operating system looked like – you had to set up your modem and dial-up network connection manually.

windows 95 operating system
CC image courtesy of TORLEY on Flickr

Is dial-up still used?

In the UK – in small numbers if at all (I haven’t found any concrete stats). BT turned off dial-up internet on 1 September 2013 which left 1,000 people unable to move to broadband.

There was supposedly still a PlusNet service (a BT subsidiary), however the Internet says that PlusNet dial-up internet stopped on 7th January 2015.

Should HMRC remove their reference to 56k modems?

Yes. Although it resulted in this post – so no.

Also, it might make someone else smile 🙂 .