Boost dial-up to broadband speeds

Trying to get broadband speeds out of a dial-up modem is like cramming a watermelon through a garden hose. But that's exactly what Artera Group International Ltd. does with its Artera Turbo service - kind of.

For small businesses that cannot get traditional high-speed offerings, like a T1 line or DSL broadband Internet access, Artera Turbo offers broadband-like Web page surfing as fast as 400 kilobits per second, for a price.

It couples modem-binding technology, which uses the power of multiple dial-up modems to increase download speeds, with proxy server technology for offline caching of e-mail and Web content. The Artera service also offers basic tools to manage e-mail accounts on-site and remotely, a firewall, Web site filtering, and Internet connectivity.

Artera Turbo is pricey, but the service should appeal to small businesses and home offices with limited or nonexistent tech support staffs that want to speed up Web surfing. During an informal trial of the service, setting up hardware and software was a snap, and the connected PCs surfed Web pages at average speeds comparable to 400 kbps. Operations that can't be cached, like file downloads, were slower--about 128 kbps, roughly equal to ISDN download speeds.

Artera Group expects to release a consumer version of its software later this year. It will run on single PCs and promises to boost Web browsing speeds up to 256 kbps.

Measuring Kilobit Cost

Artera Turbo is sold both as software and as a standalone Internet appliance. Both require a monthly subscription fee ranging from US$55 monthly for three seats ($95 for the appliance) to $400 monthly for 250 seats ($440 for the appliance). Artera Turbo fees don't include charges for phone lines or dial-up Internet access accounts.

The Artera Turbo appliance costs a business with ten PCs $125 in start-up fees for a two-year service contract. Also required are two analog phone lines (another $40 monthly) and two ISP accounts, adding about $35 per month. When you add Artera's $150 fee, the total monthly cost hits about $225 for ten users. If your needs exceed 25 PCs, Artera requires two additional modems and two more phone lines.

By comparison, the monthly rate for 1.5-mbps Verizon DSL Small Business service, if you can get it, is $70 (installation and modem fees waived). For broadband have-nots, Verizon's service cost is $92 monthly for 128-kbps ISDN service ($250 installation). Satellite two-way access (400 kbps down, 40 kbps up) provided by Earthlink will run $399 for hardware, $199 for installation, and $70 monthly.

Test: Surf's Up

I informally tested an Artera Turbo Internet appliance that supports three computers. Setup was easy. First I signed up for the service by submitting my dial-up Internet account information through a Web site, along with the names of any e-mail accounts that will be used with the service. Artera Turbo works with any existing POP3 or IMAP e-mail services.

The Artera Turbo appliance arrived within weeks. The hardware is simply a modified PC with two dial-up modems and an ethernet card. To set it up, I connected two analog phone lines and installed a required networking switch ($45) that connects multiple PCs to the Artera appliance. Next, I installed the Artera Turbo client software on the PCs that connect to the service via ethernet connections.

The Artera appliance immediately came alive, connecting to the Internet. The default setting for the device keeps the appliance connected to the Net at all times. All PCs connected, via the switch, to Artera Turbo are online and ready to surf.

Speed-Up Tricks

Artera says the appliance quickly "learns" which Web sites users frequent and, over time, will fetch Web sites even before requested, caching the pages for viewing. Artera will also connect to e-mail accounts and synchronize them while the network is otherwise idle.

The first time Artera took me to a Web page, the speeds were comparable to a dial-up 56K modem. The real benefits began when any system on my local Artera network of PCs visited the same site. In this respect, Artera acts as a proxy server and displays a cached version of the site. If a Web page changes, Artera downloads only the changes.

Because Artera Turbo uses two modems and two standard telephone lines simultaneously, Internet download speeds are about twice as fast as a single dial-up modem. Artera says it has developed a unique way to download the first half of a file with one modem while downloading the rest with the second. Casual use found download times for single files are reduced 50 percent to 60 percent compared with single-modem operations.

Similar dual-modem devices precede Artera Turbo, some supporting Multilink Point-to-Point Protocol (MLPPP). Those devices, like the discontinued WebRamp 300e, offered download speeds only about 40 percent faster than dial-up. Worse, the ISP used had to support the MLPPP technology. Artera Turbo does not require MLPPP support by the ISP in order to use a dual modem configuration; Artera setup even allows use of two different ISPs.

Artera's Upshot

Artera Turbo appliance is essentially a software-based proxy server that manages Internet traffic to and from a local area network and provides other features, such as firewall protection, document caching, and access control. It improves performance by predicting and downloading frequently requested data, such as a popular Web pages and e-mail accounts.

Sure, you could build your own proxy server and marry it to two analog modems for a fraction of what Artera will set you back yearly. However, Artera argues that its out-of-the-box service and remote support warrant its steep price.

"Nobody is selling what Artera Turbo has got rolled into one nut that a small business can use out of one small box," says Michael Parrella Jr., Artera pre-sales support coordinator.

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Tom Spring

PC World

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