By "speed" we really mean the "data flow rate" but almost everybody incorrectly calls it speed. For all modern modems you have no choice of the speed that the modem uses on the telephone line since it will automatically choose the highest possible speed that is feasible under the circumstances. If one modem is slower than the other, then the faster modem will operate at the slower modem's speed. On a noisy line, the speed will drop still lower.
While the above speeds are selected automatically by the modems you do have a choice as to what speed will be used between your modem and your computer (PC-to-modem speed). This is sometimes called "DTE speed" where "DTE" stands for Data Terminal Equipment (Your computer is a DTE.) You need to set this speed high enough so this part of the signal path will not be a bottleneck. The setting for the DTE speed is the maximum speed of this link. Most of the time it should actually operate at lower speeds.
For an external modem, DTE speed is the speed (in bits/sec) of the flow over the cable between you modem and PC. For an internal modem, it's the same idea since the modem also emulates a serial port. It may seem ridiculous having a speed limit on communication between a computer and a modem card that is directly connected inside the computer to a much higher speed bus. But it's that way since the modem card probably includes a dedicated serial port which does have speed limits (and settable speeds).
What speed do you choose? If it were not for "data compression" one might try to choose a DTE speed exactly the same as the modem speed. Data compression takes the bytes sent to the modem from your computer and encodes them into a fewer number of bytes. For example, if the flow (speed) from the PC to the modem was 20,000 bytes/sec (bps) and the compression ratio was 2 to 1, then only 10,000 bytes/sec would flow over the telephone line. Thus for a 2:1 compression ratio you need to set the DTE speed to double the maximum modem speed on the phone line. If the compression ratio were 3 to 1 you need to set it 3 times faster, etc.
This DTE (PC-to-modem) speed is normally set by a menu in your communications program or by an option given to the getty command if someone is dialing in. You can't set the DCE modem-to-modem speed since this is set automatically by the modem to the highest feasible speed after negotiation with the other modem. Well, actually you can set the modem-to-modem speed with the S37 register but you shouldn't do it. If the two modems on a connection were to be set this way to different speeds, then they couldn't communicate with each other.
The top speed of 115.2k has been standard since the mid 1990's. But by the year 2000, most new serial ports supported higher speeds of 230.4k and 460.8k. Some also support 921.6k. Unfortunately Linux seldom uses these speeds due to lack of drivers. These ports behave just like 115.2k ports unless the higher speeds are enabled by special software. To get these speeds you need to compile the kernel with special patches but it seems that the 2.4 kernels not yet supported
The patch software is fairly simple since it only needs to enable the higher speeds by dialog with the hardware. But it's not quite as simple as just putting an enable byte in a hardware register since the registers weren't designed for this. But unfortunately, there is no standard way to enable the higher speeds so the driver needs to support a variety of hardware.
A patch to support high-speed is called shsmod (Super High Speed Mode). There are both Windows and Linux versions of this patch. See http://www.devdrv.com/shsmod. For Linux (as of late 2001), most of the documentation is only in Japanese and the patch is for the old kernel 2.2.x. There is also a module for the VIA VT82C686 chip http://www.kati.fi/viahss/. Using it may result in buffer overflow.
For internal modems, only a minority of them advertise that they support speeds of over 115.2k for their built-in serial ports. Does shsmod support these ??
Here's a list of commonly used divisors and their corresponding speeds (assuming a maximum speed of 115,200): 1 (115.2k), 2 (57.6k), 3 (38.4k), 6 (19.2k), 12 (9.6k), 24 (4.8k), 48 (2.4k), 96 (1.2k), etc. The serial driver sets the speed in the hardware by sending the hardware only a "divisor" (a positive integer). This "divisor" divides the maximum speed of the hardware resulting in a slower speed (except a divisor of 1 obviously tells the hardware to run at maximum speed).
There are exceptions to the above since for certain serial port hardware, speeds above 115.2k are set by using a very high divisor. Normally, if you specify a speed of 115.2k (in your communication program or by stty) then the serial driver sets the port hardware to divisor 1 which sets the highest speed. If you happen to have hardware with a maximum speed of say 230.4k (and the 230.4k speed has been enabled), then specifying 115.2k will result in divisor 1. For some hardware this will actually give you 230.4k. This is double the speed that you set. In fact, for any speed you set, the actual speed will be double. If you had hardware that could run at 460.8k then the actual speed would be quadruple what you set. All the above assumes that you don't use "setserial" to modify things.
To correct this accounting (but not always fix the problem) you may use "setserial" to change the baud_base to the actual maximal speed of your port such as 230.4k. Then if you set the speed (by your application or by stty) to 230.4k, a divisor of 1 will be used and you'll get the same speed as you set.
If you have old software which will not permit such a high speed (but your hardware has it enabled) then you might want to look into using the "spd_cust" parameter for setserial with "divisor 1". Then when you tell the application that the speed it 38,400, it will use divisor 1 and get the highest speed.
There are some brands of UARTs that uses a very high divisor to set high speeds. There isn't any satisfactory way to use "setserial" (say set "divisor 32770") to get such a speed since then setserial would then think that the speed is very low and disable the FIFO in the UART.
Note that the baud_base setting is usually much lower than the frequency of the crystal oscillator in the hardware since the crystal frequency is often divided by 16 in the hardware to get the actual top speed. The reason the crystal frequency needs to be higher is so that this high crystal speed can generate clock ticks to take a number of samples of each bit to determine if it's a 1 or a 0.
It's best to have at least a 16650 UART for a 56k modem but few modems or serial ports provide it. Second best is a 16550 that has been tweaked to give 230,400 bps (230.4 kbps). Most people still use a 16550 that is only 115.2 kbps but it's claimed to only slow down thruput by a few percent (on average). This is because a typical compression ratio is 2 to 1 and for downloading compressed files (packages) it's 1 to 1. There's no degradation for these cases. Here are some suggested speeds to set your serial line if your modem speed is:
All the above speeds may use v.42bis data compression and v.42 error correction. If data compression is not used then the speed may be set lower so long as it's above the modem speed.