Reports of Death of Dial-Up Internet Greatly Exaggerated

The lowly analog modem once provided the de facto soundtrack of the Internet: a soothing dial-tone hum followed by a crescendo of beeping, screeching and scratching before a friendly "You've got mail" let you know you had arrived in cyberspace.

But as computer manufacturers replace the once-ubiquitous device that made Web surfing a reality for millions of Americans with Wi-Fi cards and broadband network ports, is it time for America's 147 million adult Internet users to eulogize the dial-up connection — or have reports of its death been greatly exaggerated?

Almost twice the number of Americans who go online at home say they use broadband connections rather than dial-up, according to data released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in late April.

A whopping 62 percent of users surveyed reported getting to cyberspace via high-speed connection, while 34 percent said they still used analog modems — and many said they liked it that way.

"Some of my friends are saying that I'm not taking advantage of my new machine by not having cable or [DSL]. That may be the case, but all I'm using my computer for is to read and respond to e-mails," said Luis Mocete, 36, of Yonkers, N.Y. "I'm not using it to download videos or music, for example, so there is no reason for me to incur [the] cost of a service that I am not really going to take advantage of."

The number of American adults with broadband access at home leaped 40 percent from 60 million to 84 million people in the year leading up to March 2006 — double the rate of growth from the previous year, according to another recently released Pew study .

With almost 25 million more Americans using broadband this year than last, it might seem like the demise of dial-up is nigh.

Not so fast. The study also revealed that a whopping 60 percent of dial-up users, such as Mocete, told the Pew pollsters that they were not interested in switching.

The study speculates that many dial-up users are turned off by the high pricetag of high-speed Internet services. Users reported average monthly bills of $41 for cable Internet access, and $38 for DSL service, as opposed to $18 per month for dial-up.

Nonetheless, computer manufacturers are turning the screws on dial-up diehards like Mocete — at least as an out-of-the-box configuration.

When Apple released its new line of Intel processor-powered MacBook Pro laptops in January, the 56K modem that had been standard issue in all Macintoshes since the iMac debuted in 1998 was conspicuously missing.

Except for the educational-market-targeted eMac, Apple now sells no computers with built-in analog modems, though it does offer an external USB modem for $49. All Macintoshes come with standard Ethernet ports, and most come with built-in Wi-Fi cards.

Always a Silicon Valley trendsetter, Apple was one of the first manufacturers to remove floppy-disk drives from its hardware — also in 1998.

Michael J. Miller, chief content officer of Ziff Davis Media, said that manufacturers are eager to cut costs to competitively price their machines, even if it means getting rid of relatively inexpensive hardware.

"Everything is a nominal fee, but [those] add up," Miller said. "Floppy drives are not expensive these days, but why burden everyone with the cost if people aren't going to use them?"

Nevertheless, Miller doesn't think many major computer makers will follow Apple's lead, as long as even a minor portion of their customers still use dial-up.

"The big question is going to be the rural markets," Miller said. "In urban markets, DSL will be there, and it will be competitively priced."

High-speed connections used to require that Internet service providers build and maintain physical pipelines, which were not cost-effective in sparsely populated areas.

But experts think cheaply deployable wide-area Wi-Fi networks — such as Cisco Systems' rural broadband initiative — as well as satellite Internet link-ups and broadband over electrical power lines will bridge the so-called "digital divide" in even the most remote corners of the county.

Even if broadband access becomes available in hard-to-reach markets and service providers can make high-speed prices competitive with dial-up, old-school Web surfing may linger around as an alternative cyberspace gateway.

Many of the stubborn dial-up users surveyed in the Pew study were older or had lower incomes than early adopters of broadband. However, broadband adoption was nevertheless accelerating even among those groups.

Michael Cai, director of broadband and gaming at Parks Associates, a consumer-technology research firm, said dial-up diehards would likely survive aggressive marketing campaigns by the likes of AOL, which is currently encouraging its dial-up subscribers to switch by equalizing the prices of its "narrowband" and broadband services. He predicted they would opt for cheaper, no-frills service providers like NetZero and PeoplePC.

"Many narrowband subscribers are downgrading from premium services like AOL, Earthlink and MSN Dial-Up to budget services," Cai said. "The number of budget service subscribers doubled between 2002 and 2005, although total narrowband subscribers decreased dramatically."

Although many of the 23 million American households that use dial-up today will make the leap to broadband in the next four years — a century in terms of technology — Cai thinks many users will stick it out.

"Even by 2010, I still forecast 4 or 5 million narrowband subscribers. But by that time, I don't think there will be any premium narrowband subscribers left," Cai said. "They will be subscribing to really cheap services and playing $5 to $10 a month."

Proud Luddites, like Mocete, plan to keep their analog modems happily chirping away for years to come. And providers such as MSN say they will continue to offer dial-up access as long as their users demand it.

But power users like Greg Peverill-Conti, 40, of Natick, Mass., say dial-up devotees will repent and chuck their modems to the curb once they see the power of high-speed connections.

"Using the Internet is integral to my life. I use the Web far more than I watch TV — even choosing online over broadcast when the same content is available via both simultaneously," Peverill-Conti said. "If I can't get a broadband connection, though, I prefer not to go online."