There’s a good chance it’s been a long time since you’ve heard the sound of a dial-up modem negotiating a connection (and some of you may not be old enough to have ever heard it). But for a surprising number of Americans, the buzzy electronic jingle of dial-up modems never went away.
A Very Brief History of Dial-Up Internet
If you’re old enough and were among the millions of early internet adopters in the United States, you’re familiar with dial-up internet. You probably have memories of getting kicked offline when somebody in your house picked up a telephone handset in another room (and of setting up downloads to run overnight to avoid that problem). But for folks without that modem nostalgia, here’s a brief look at dial-up internet.
Long before broadband was available (or even practical), people got online with a home phone line and a modem. The first online destinations were Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and other online service providers—many of which transformed into the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) when internet access became more widely available.
Early modems were stand-alone boxes, like the U.S. Robotics modem seen above, not unlike the stand-alone cable and broadband modems we have today. But over time, PC card modems became more common (though today, they’ve been replaced by modem USB adapters). When you wanted to get online, you’d turn on the computer, use an application to activate the modem, and dial into your internet service provider’s phone bank.
You had to leave your computer on (and your phone line tied up) for the duration of the experience. Even people who had a second phone line installed just for dial-up internet weren’t online all the time the way most people are today. You didn’t leave your modem on all the time, partially because there was no pressing need to do so and partially because of the expense.
Internet access was limited to the PC you were sitting at, and things like streaming media and smartphones didn’t exist, so there was no overall household demand. And even if streaming had existed, you’d have been out of luck actually using it. Dial-up modems maxed out at 56 Kbps. To put that in modern broadband terms, 56 Kbps is 0.056 Mbps. By comparison, the FCC defines broadband as at least 25 Mbps—over 400 times faster than dialup.
Further—and this might be shocking younger readers—dial-up internet access was time-based. If you thought you hated data caps, imagine running out of internet minutes like you were using a prepaid cellphone.
Your monthly dial-up internet subscription was typically for X hours of connection time with your provider. Although unlimited dial-up plans appeared in the late 1990s, paying a set fee for a modest number of hours and an additional fee for extra hours was common. In 1995, for example, the subscription fee for America Online (AOL) was $9.95 for five hours a month and $2.95 for each additional hour.
How Many Americans Are Still Using Dial-Up Internet?
Our brief history of dial-up sounds so old-fashioned it might feel like we’re talking about 8-track players or the advent of color television. But a surprising number of Americans still use dial-up internet out of necessity because of incomplete broadband market penetration. The U.S. is a big place with a lot of spread-out rural locations, and the wait time for that “final mile” of broadband network rollout has been in the someday-never category for many people.
In 2000, dial-up internet adoption was around 34%, rising to 41% in 2001 as people’s interest in home internet access outpaced broadband rollout, according to Pew Research. The rise of broadband more than halved those numbers by 2007, with dial-up internet only accounting for 15% of home internet use. By 2013, dial-up internet accounted for only around 3% of internet users.
As time goes on, it’s harder to account for the remaining dial-up users because they aren’t counted as part of official broadband surveys, but we do have some data to go off of. By 2019, Census estimates put dial-up internet use at around 0.2% of households, meaning as of 2019, at least 265,000 people in the U.S. were still using dial-up for home internet access. This cratering of dial-up subscribers found in the Census data is also reflected in survey data from National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Dial-up internet usage has been below 1% since sometime in 2015.
These dial-up subscribers use one of the few remaining national dial-up providers, such as NetZero, Juno, or one of the smaller regional providers that still offers dial-up. If those names sound familiar, it’s because NetZero and Juno are still going strong in the dial-up internet space after nearly thirty years.
Satellite and Cellular Have Largely Replaced Rural Dial-Up
Most Americans now connect to the internet using broadband delivered by Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable, or fiber. You might think because DSL uses existing phone infrastructure, it would be the natural migration path for dial-up subscribers.
The problem is DSL requires proximity to a network device called a Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM) that concentrates all the individual DSL connections together before connecting them to the ISP’s local network.
The further the subscriber is from the DSLAM, the lower the connection quality. While DSL allows people close to the DSLAM to get speeds of up to around 25 Mbps under ideal conditions, the speed quickly drops off. Even a few miles is enough to drop the signal strength to the point where dial-up is the only viable phone-based connection.
The gap in rural broadband internet coverage has instead been partially filled by a combination of satellite internet and cellular network deployments. Roughly 8 million households use some form of satellite internet. And cellular expansion initiatives have made wireless internet more accessible. Not only are more rural subscribers getting their internet through cellular providers like AT&T and Verizon, but you’ll even find some of the old-school names from the heyday of dial-up internet, like Earthlink, out there delivering LTE-based wireless internet.
So while you might not be thrilled with the speed, price, or variety of your local broadband, if you have access to legitimate broadband, you can certainly be thankful you’re not stuck with dial-up.
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