Friday, July 24, 2009

Is Dial-Up Internet Doomed?

Once the undisputed ruler of the Internet, dial-up service, seems to be facing a bleak future. It's become a broadband world, with every technology from WiFi hotspots to DSL to two-way satellite to Cable Internet to Fiber to the Home to cellular WAN clawing at each other's users in hopes of getting them to switch services. Where does the once cutting edge 56K dial-up service fit in? Or does it?

If you are a heavy broadband user, you may be shocked to hear that as many as 20 or 30 million people in the U.S. still log-in to the bloodcurdling scream of the connecting telephone modem. Are these people Luddites? Masochists? Or do they live way out yonder where the cable lines don't go?

Actually, dial-up Internet users fall into two categories. Those who would switch to broadband in a second if there was a low priced alternative available and those who use the Internet so little that they loathe to pay anything at all. Dial-up works just fine for them, thank you.

Hey, it wasn't that long ago that dial-up worked just fine for all of us. You remember the last century, don't you? I'm so old I can fondly remember getting my first 2400 bps modem bundled with Prodigy service for the Mac. This was pre-Internet, but offered web-like pages that were actually generated by the software installed in the computer. The latest news and other information automatically downloaded from the service as needed to fill in the blanks.

The US Robotics 56K modems that came later were plenty fast enough for surfing text-heavy Web pages, sending and reading email, and even building your own site. As a regular modem upgrader, I came to expect constant performance improvements. But it all stopped at 56K. Why? Because that's all an analog telephone connection can handle. To be truthful, I never got the full 56 Kbps or anything close on our noisy lines. Connections at 36 to 48K were common, but completely usable.

I've had a cable broadband service for almost 10 years now. But I only gave up my dial-up account last year. Why? Because I was still getting significant traffic on that first website and the cable has only become dependable since Comcast took it over a couple of years ago. I cut the cord since my old faithful Web site faded into obscurity and the plethora of free WiFi hotspots nearby serve as an adequate backup ISP.

So if someone who is an avowed heavy Internet user hung on to dial-up service until just recently, it doesn't really surprise me that there are millions of casual users out there who don't feel the need for speed. It could be that email is their killer app. It could be that they only log-in occasionally. It could be that they are social users, not developers, and that the sites they visit aren't that resource demanding. How much speed do you really need for Google searches, Wikipedia, or Twitter?

Suffice it to say that the $9.95 a month dial-up service from NetZero looks really good compared to broadband prices. For $14.95 you can get an accelerated dial-up service that doesn't cram bits down the phone line any faster but gives the effect of faster loading pages by caching, reducing image sizes, pre-fetching and other technical tricks.

Even so, is NetZero destined to be the last dial-up ISP standing? There are forces afoot that might make it so. Most significant is the new rural broadband stimulus that is using public funds to bring at least 640 Kbps broadband to the hinterlands. If prices fall well below $20 a month for broadband, many dial-up stalwarts will be tempted to move on up to watching online videos and hanging out in resource demanding websites.

Frustrated rural residents who have their choice between pricey two-way satellite Internet or cheap dial-up will jump to low cost broadband in the blink of an eye. So will urban dwellers of modest incomes who need cheaper broadband for school work or launching their own online businesses.

There is also a whole class of users who get all the Internet access they need or want on their cell phones. The new touchscreen models with 3G connectivity can message, email, and bring up Web pages as efficiently as PCs running on typical broadband services. A recent entry, the netbook, is a notebook computer that runs on cellular broadband. Get used to one of these and the thought of having a wire connected to your computer just so you can access the Internet will seem quaint, indeed.

Dial-up is far from dead, and its demise may be extended well into the future by the crush of the current recessionary economy. But sooner or later the symbiotic relationship between dial-up modem and analog telephone line will be done for, as both technologies fade into the history of technology along with the telegraph, coal furnaces, and the Victrola.

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