Dial-Up Internet

The earliest version of what would become the internet was a Department of Defense project. Known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, this project debuted for military and government purposes in the 1960s.

Hand with tablet

 In 1983, ARPANET added the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which standardized data transmissions between multiple networks and set the stage for the World Wide Web. Dial-up internet was the first technology offered to consumers who wanted to connect.

Outside of universities, government institutions and bulletin board systems (BBS), the earliest dial-up service was through providers such as AOL, CompuServe or Prodigy, and 14.4 kilobytes/second (Kbps) was considered an excellent speed. 

In 1994, new modems were introduced that could hit speeds of up to 28.8 Kbps, and in 1996 a new generation of 56 Kbps modems was born. Kids of the 1990s fondly, or not so fondly, remember the screeching dial-up internet sound that could last for several seconds before a connection was made.

Dial-up internet fell out of favor by the mid-2000s, as faster and more reliable broadband connections took over. But dial-up has not gone away completely. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, three percent of Americans still use dial-up internet at home. Here is what you should know about this once common form of internet service.

What is dial-up internet and how does it work?

Your dial-up internet connection starts with a dial-up modem, which sends and receives data through your traditional telephone line. You cannot get dial-up internet if you do not have an old-school phone line, and you cannot use your phone line for telephone calls while you are connected to the internet. 

When you launch your dial-up internet service, your modem initiates a “handshake protocol,” which is the source of the infamous dial-up internet sound. It calls another modem at your internet service provider (ISP) and negotiates the terms of the connection.

The two modems convert digital signals to analog, send them through the public telephone lines and then convert the analog signals back to digital. They do this with the help of a data pump and a data controller, which may be built into the modem or contained in software.

Who uses dial-up internet?

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), six percent of Americans have no access to broadband internet. In rural areas, this rises to nearly twenty-five percent. While satellite internet and often DSL are available in these areas, dial-up internet is cheaper, or possibly even free. For those living on very tight budgets, this may be the deciding factor.

ProviderType of internetSpeedsStarting package price

Availability of dial-up internet

Dial-up internet is available to anyone with a traditional landline. Just make sure that the dial-up service provider you choose has at least one local access number in your area code to avoid long-distance charges.

Dial-up internet equipment

Unlike other ISPs, dial-up service providers do not offer equipment. This makes sense, as in the heyday of dial-up internet, virtually all homes had a landline, and nearly all computers were sold with a modem. 

Today, however, many people have traded their home phone for a cell phone, and modems are not typically included with computers (since most people choose broadband service). To use dial-up internet, you will need to subscribe to landline service through your phone company and purchase a 56K modem.

Compare dial-up internet providers

NetZero

NetZero’s Free Dial-Up plan offers 10 hours of internet access per month, along with unlimited email addresses. The HiSpeed Accelerated Dial-Up plan offers unlimited internet connections at five times the speed along with web-based email with spam and virus protection. There is also live tech support for the first 30 days.

AOL

AOL plans are available with ID protection, data security, or both. ID protection features include personal data and reputation monitoring, ID theft alerts and a secure password manager. Data security features include anti-phishing and anti-keylogging technology, public WiFi encryption and powerful cross-device antivirus software.

TurboUSA

TurboUSA options include accelerated dial-up speed, email archiving and online backup. The standard TurboUSA email box is 100 MB, with 1 GB available for an additional fee. The Turbo Premium package includes all available upgrades.

DialUp4Less

The DialUp4Less Limited plan includes 25 hours of internet connectivity per month, along with one email address and free tech support. The Unlimited plan is exactly the same, except that you can connect for unlimited time at no additional fee.

Copper.net

Copper.net offers standard, no-frills, dial-up internet. It provides one email address, free tech support and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Pros and cons of dial-up service

PROS

  • Cheap
  • Widely available
  • No special equipment required beyond a modem
  • No extra wiring required beyond a traditional phone line

CONS

  • Must have a landline
  • Extremely slow—unable to stream video or open large web pages
  • Not suitable for gaming or working online
  • Need to provide your own 56 Kbps modem

In your area

Dial-up internet was the way that millions of people first connected to the internet. Times change, though, and as broadband technology became cheaper and more widely available, the internet evolved to meet it. Today, dial-up internet is severely limited in usefulness, but it is a cheap and reliable option for those who do not have access to broadband.

Frequently Asked Questions

Yes. Dial-up service is still available through a few providers. However, it is very slow and cannot handle most of today’s internet tasks such as streaming, gaming or even opening many web pages.

A dial-up modem converts digital data to analog signals and sends them along the public telephone network. You must have a landline to use dial-up internet.

Broadband usage grew rapidly in the early 2000s, and it surpassed dial-up in popularity around 2004. By 2010, very few households still used dial-up.

Because of its severe limitations, dial-up internet is not typically recommended. If you are on a very tight budget or live in a rural area with few choices, it is better than nothing.