Impoverished humanist seeks meaningful connection
April 22, 2010 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Scaling back to dialup?

After enjoying years of flawless basic DSL service for less than $20/month, I’m moving a mile up the road to a very nice house that happens to be in a no-DSL zone. I found out today that my only broadband options – Comcast or Uverse – would cost $45 or more per month, with ridiculous installation fees tacked on ($149? Give me a break!).

Maybe it’s my Scots genes expressing themselves, or maybe it’s just the perennially stressed budget of a humanities prof, but there is no way I’m going pay double (and more!) for web access at home. Since it would be mostly used for work, I’ve looked into the possibility of deducting the expense, but the CPA consensus seems to be negative on that. Realistically, my options are either to go off-line altogether at home, or to get a dialup ISP.

I can get interweb fluff on campus any time, so there’s no need to duplicate it at home. On the other hand, I’d prefer to have at least some internet access at home, since it’s far easier to get work done there than on campus (where there’s no quiet, anywhere, ever).

So.....dialup. I haven’t used dialup for eight or nine years, and I’m wondering what its profile is these days. I need to read email, access the university library's online resources (such as the MLA bibliography, the OED, etc.), and download the occasional 20-50 page pdf.

Can you help me estimate whether a dialup connection would be sufficient for me? Would I be able to get what I need in a more or less efficient way if I gave up broadband? I realize everything would be slower -- but how much slower than my current bargain-basement DSL?
posted by philokalia to Technology (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Probably at least 20x slower.
posted by Brent Parker at 6:46 PM on April 22, 2010

You'll probably get extremely frustrated because you're used to much higher speeds. It seems like most web designers assume everyone has DSL or better these days, and sites are much more graphics-heavy than they were when everyone had dialup.

I'm surprised your university doesn't have some sort of discount. Mine did, not just for students but for employees. I think we got cable for ~$20/month.
posted by desjardins at 6:54 PM on April 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I use satellite internet access because nothing else is available here, and when the weather is really bad I have to fall back to regular dialup. It's acceptable for email, as long as nobody attaches a large file -- but not much else.

I would be thrilled to be able to pay just $45/month for real broadband. That would seriouly be life-changing (and a lot cheaper than satellite access.)

Still, this is practically a zero-risk experiment. If you want to try dialup, find a local company that offers it; it's cheap (ours costs about $10/month.) When you discover how painfully, irritatingly slow it is, you can cancel the dialup account and go back to broadband.
posted by ook at 7:02 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can get a reliable 56K dial up connection (I say "if" because it's not at all a sure thing that you will, and you could be looking at 33.6K or even 28.8K, just as easily, depending on the vagaries of the Plain Old Telephone System and your dial up ISP's modem rack), that 50 page .pdf is easily a 2 hour download, and maybe 3 to 4 if your modem drops back to 33.6K for a while. That virus definitions update your anti-virus vendor is pushing out 3 times a day now is about 45 minutes an update. A monthly run by Windows Update on Update Tuesday is likely to be a several hour download marathon. Most entry level residential ADSL service in the U.S. is 512K/128K (512K down and 128K up) and it's fairly error free, meaning your ADSL link will only renegotiate its rate and retransmit garbled data a few times a week, whereas POTS service modems will spend about 5 to 20% of their time on a POTS link renegotiating the link speed for noise and error conditions, and retransmitting lost data. So, the lower POTS speed is magnified even more by retraining overhead. If you get a solid 33.6K POTS connection, versus your basic 512K ADSL line download speed, everything you download will take 15 times longer on the POTS line, as it did on the ADSL line.

And unless you're able to get a bargain rate on a land line, these days, a basic POTS service voice line costs you $40 or more a month in a lot of areas. POTS is just a crappy, expensive way to connect to the Internet.
posted by paulsc at 7:04 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I use dial up (56k) for about 2 weeks a year at a vacation cottage. This is only a reasonable option if you can get it entirely for free. Do not pay even $1 extra for this "service". Most site designers do not design for such slow download speed, and there are large portions of the internet that I can't even see on dial up, no matter how long I am willing to wait. My web-based university email was not operational at all, it would time out before it would load. It is worth a shot if it will cost you NOTHING, but don't pay any money.
posted by mjcon at 7:31 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you tried stealing broadband WiFi from your neighbors?
posted by domnit at 7:37 PM on April 22, 2010

Is WiMax an option in your area? ClearWire, the first option to come to mind for WiMax, is growing (slowly). They bill themselves as a "wireless alternative to cable or DSL." Perhaps they provide service in your area?

It sounds like the data intensive activities will be work related. Have you talked to higher-ups in your department about this? Maybe you can work something out where your department picks up part of the cost.

Comcast isn't cheap, I know. They're my current provider and I hate everything about them. BUT, I'm stuck. I need online access. At the end of the day, you're going to have to weigh how important high speed internet access is to you.

Is an additional $25/month worth the ability to work in the peace and quite of your own home?
posted by ASM at 7:43 PM on April 22, 2010

and download the occasional 20-50 page pdf.

Not happening.
posted by applemeat at 7:48 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised your university doesn't have some sort of discount. Mine did, not just for students but for employees. I think we got cable for ~$20/month.

Lucky you! I wish that were true for my town. If it were, though, everyone would get a discount, since there's no employer here except the U. If I wanted to live in a dorm, I'd get free internet; but I'm not quite that desperate. ;-)

So it looks like top dialup speeds are about the same as they were in 1995? How discouraging.

The next best solution is to print out whatever I need on campus, and bring it home to read. This will lead to huge guilt-inducing piles of paper, but printing is free. (I find this a little perverse, since we're being nickeled- and dimed to death in every other way; the paper and toner budget is sacred, apparently.)

It really sucks that an extra $25/month matters to me. Alas, it does.
posted by philokalia at 7:49 PM on April 22, 2010

A few years ago I had A Return To Dialup, albeit only for a month. You are correct: dial-up hasn't evolved since the mid 90s. However, the internet most definitely has.

If you're thrifty, think of it this way: any dial-up connection is going to cost you between $10 and $20 a month. In other words, you'd be paying the same (or half) as you were before, for approximately 1/20th the capacity. Paying twice as much for the same capacity (i.e. cable) is - mathematically - a bargain by comparison.

Were I faced with the same living situation again, I'd just go internet-free. It's far less aggravating to have no internet at home, than to try and struggle with dial-up. If you have a laptop with a wireless card, you can soak up free internet at a lot of places, including many cafes and libraries.
posted by ErikaB at 7:57 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you already happen to have a smart-phone? If so, you could look into tethering to that for occasional Internet access. The details would depend on your phone & carrier.
posted by dcjd at 8:06 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd have to agree with previous posters: Given the choice between dial-up and no internet, I'd choose no internet every time. Dial-up is a special hell I will never revisit under any circumstances. I'm officially violently allergic.
posted by Phyltre at 8:37 PM on April 22, 2010

So it looks like top dialup speeds are about the same as they were in 1995? How discouraging.

Yep. A very smart (brilliant, genius) guy named Claude Shannon worked out early on that there's only so much information you can transmit over a given communications channel. The old voice telephone system is an extremely crappy channel. 56k is as much blood as anyone is every going to squeeze from that stone.

The improvement to the old dialup modems is DSL. It runs over the same lines but at higher frequencies and more limitations. About 3 miles from any central office is as far as it can go; after that the noise and/or line attenuation is too great. And the improvement on that is cable. And the improvement on that is Fiber to the Node/Premis.
posted by sbutler at 8:41 PM on April 22, 2010

If you need to read a PDF, just put it on a USB drive and bring it home. Do not ever ever ever contemplate downloading a 50 page PDF over dial-up. There's also no need to print it.
posted by stoneweaver at 8:58 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I never thought I'd see the day, but I'm going to defend dial-up! Someone has to, I suppose. To set things straight, I'm technophobic and live on a tight budget (unemployed). I point this out only to say that I really don't know what I'm talking about from a technological standpoint. I know what I experience from a basic user's point-of-view. I don't have cable, and my house isn't wired for cable. From a technological and financial standpoint, dial-up is my one and only option. I have only ever had dial-up in my house, so my insight will be kind of backwards from the more typical 'it's going to be sooooo much slower' warnings that you'll probably get. But the reason why I am commenting is that I'm proof that, if you only need to have the most basic connection to the internet, you actually can get by. I'm not saying it won't be frustrating sometimes, but it's more than doable.

I have a rocky relationship with my dial-up. On the one hand, since it's my only option, I'm grateful to have any access to the internet at all. Sometimes it's very reliable but slow. Other times, it's less than reliable and slow. When I'm at my sister's and use her internet (cable), I'm awestruck by the speed. Websites appear instantly. That doesn't usually happen with my dial-up. It doesn't seem like websites are optimized for speed anymore, and it's a shame that that's not a consideration. It's possible to tweak browser settings so that you don't have to wait around for unwanted pictures and videos to load. The painful truth is there are a lot of things that I can't do with my dial-up (and my dial-up seems to be on the extra slow side, according to paulsc's numbers). It does usually take around an hour to download a file that is maybe 5 MB. However, I don't download things often. If you're someone who downloads music, watches television, or plays games online, dial-up just isn't going to work for you. I do the most basic sort of browsing (using Firefox): email (and I ask people not to send me large files), blogging and uploading to Flickr, checking out a few websites. I have no problems using YouTube or Flickr.. You do just have to be patient. Things don't load instantly. But I am able to access most features on most of the sites that I go to. So, as I said, many times it can be a pain, but if you're not a gamer, heavy downloader, or a visitor to very image/video heavy or Flashy sites (I don't even have Flash installed), dial-up is a viable option. Based on the things you've said you want to do on your home computer, I absolutely believe that dial-up would be perfectly sufficient, but, since you're downgrading you will notice a difference (though I'll leave it to techier people to tell you how much of a difference). It's up to you to decide if it's worth paying $30+ more than me for those faster speeds.

Honestly, I'm kind of tired of being told that I should pay money I don't have to do all of these things on the internet that I can live without. Not everyone's lives center around the internet, and not everyone needs amazing high-tech religious experiences on every single website. Err.. IMO.
posted by Mael Oui at 9:19 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

and download the occasional 20-50 page pdf.

Not happening.

What are the typical sizes of the files? I've downloaded MUCH bigger (page-wise) (mostly text) pdfs without any hassle.
posted by Mael Oui at 9:25 PM on April 22, 2010

I'd rather give up $25 dollars of ANYTHING per month than go from cable internet to Dial-up.

You can't do ANYTHING on dial-up. You may as well not have internet.
posted by mhuckaba at 9:33 PM on April 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can you really not cut something else to make available those $25 bucks a month? Maybe you're just missing an alternative... Skip on cable, and just watch TV shows on your PC using the internet you're paying $45 for? (Seriously, this is cheap... Also -- installation fees are usually negotiable.) Give up your land line and use get a packaged VOIP deal with your internet provider? I guess it all depends on how connected you are and how important the internet is to your life, but there are many, many other ways I could reduce my monthly spending by $25 before I'd even consider going back to dial-up. *shudder* Steal toilet paper from the university? (I'm kinda kidding, I suppose... but that's $5/month right there).
posted by cgg at 9:38 PM on April 22, 2010

I'm going to offer some suggestions to help you cope with dial up if you do go that route.

If you must get dial up, do try out Opera. They have a wonderful speed boosting technology built into their browser that makes it perfect for situations like yours. Opera Turbo. It will boost your browsing speed significantly on static webpages. This is the same tech that makes Opera Mini scream on mobile phones. Opera also has a built in RSS reader (there are many other great ones as well) this will help you cope as well so you don't have to worry about your content being loaded, it's just delivered to you - like email. Also for your large pdf's have a look at some download managers. Some more tips.
posted by Brent Parker at 10:18 PM on April 22, 2010

I really don't understand this at all: the constant pain and annoyance at your computer being too slow for almost any modern internet related task versus paying 20 dollars a month more?

Maybe you have one of those community wireless networks that I keep hearing about near you?
posted by devnull at 1:25 AM on April 23, 2010

I had dialup here at my house till 2006 or so. Surprisingly, I was totally able to download PDFs and browse any web site. I didn't watch many videos, it's true.

It would suck to go back at this point, but if you only need to pick up the occasional thing from the web and from email, it should be doable.
posted by DarkForest at 3:41 AM on April 23, 2010

I'd just about stop eating to afford broadband if that's what it took.

Also, I simply would not ever live in a house where I didn't have broadband.

Take my TV, my phone, or maybe even my car, but don't dare take my fast internet.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:43 AM on April 23, 2010

If my experience is a guide, you'll never actually get 56k. 53k was something to jump up and down about. In the 40s was more typical. That may not seem like a big difference, but consider it on a percentage basis and you'll see why I mention it. Having said that ...

Checking web-based e-mail is doable via dial-up. Anything beyond a small attachment becomes tedious, of course, but if you simply want to read messages, that's not so bad. A little surfing works, but you'll run out of patience and stop faster than you would otherwise.

It's amazing how large Web pages have gotten now that broadband is so common. If you're serious about using dial-up, I'd recommend the following based on experience to cut down on the amount of data you'd to download on each page:
- Firefox with
- Adblock Plus add-on
- Do NOT install a Flash plugin
- Consider turning images off completely until you need them

Also, waiting for software and virus updates can be tedious at best and problematic at worst, depending on size. If you use a laptop that you could take to a faster connection to download these updates, that would help a lot.
posted by pmurray63 at 4:48 AM on April 23, 2010

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this yet, but the cable Internet available at your new location will probably be quite a bit faster than your existing DSL connection. It's not like you're paying $25/month more for the exact same Internet.
posted by joshrholloway at 6:18 AM on April 23, 2010

Seconding the "you may as well not have internet if your only option is dialup" view. Coming from broadband you're only going to get frustrated and unhappy.

But this might also be an opportunity to look at how your spend your time and try out some changes, e.g. keeping your work on campus, and using your hometime to create. Many advocate this to increase their creativity as - surprisingly enough - the internet can also be a massive time-sink and an unwelcome distraction.
posted by scrm at 6:21 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

have you calculated the cost of a landline into your costs? you'd be paying at least $20 a month just for the phone line you'd get trying to get internet access one. add dialup at maybe $15/month and you you're very close to the cable internet costs. ditch your landline, get broadband and a one time fee VoIP phone if you still need a "home phone"
posted by jrishel at 6:47 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the information. There are a lot of dialup providers in town (five or six, as opposed to just the two broadband ISPs) so clearly I'm not the only one who's being priced out of the high speed market.

I'm also pretty miffed to find out that the phone company used to offer cheap DSL at the place I'm moving to, but since they made the expensive fiberoptic service available there, the DSL is gone.

Look, if I could afford cable or fiberoptic, I'd spring for it. I'm really on a bare-bones budget though. I don't have tv, a smart phone, or a laptop -- and I just have the one desktop computer that I can either keep at home or in my (noisy, uncomfortable, unventilated) campus office.

Until now I have done pretty well in terms of getting the technology I need for a price I can afford -- my $35/mo. bill for phone + DSL was manageable -- but it looks like it's moving out of reach for me as an individual. What irks me is that the inexpensive options work perfectly well for what I need, but technology providers are taking those options away, and requiring me to choose between overspending, or nothing. Phooey. I guess I'll just have to rely more on what the institution supplies, and try to minimize the irritations of working on an overcrowded campus.

I will probably give the dialup a try, at least to start with, when I move. Additional strategies will be the use of printouts, and buying a fan and stocking up on earplugs so I can put up with a few additional hours at the office.
posted by philokalia at 6:59 AM on April 23, 2010

I would get a usb drive and download things you're going to need to there while you're on campus (this can include things like software and virus def updates, as well as the usual pdfs and other documents like that -- saves paper and space). Then you can just copy it to your home computer. I've used dial up before, and for checking email, it's fine. Your school may support using a command line/terminal utility/Unix-thing for logging in to your school account which would be faster than using some sort of graphical interface to access your school files. If so, maybe you can use pine or mutt or some other text-based email program for your email which would be way faster. I still use pine (well, alpine) to check my email sometimes.
posted by bluefly at 7:45 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

My university library also lent out laptops and had wireless throughout the building. Perhaps you could find a quiet spot there to get away from your office.

my $35/mo. bill for phone + DSL was manageable

So the difference between DSL and cable is now only ten dollars, not the 25 in the original question. I haven't had a landline in years; you don't need it.

Also, I'm not sure why my previous comment was deleted, but flash drives really are the way to go if you cannot download large files at home.
posted by desjardins at 8:41 AM on April 23, 2010

I use my flash drive all the time and I have broadband at home. If you just plug it in every morning when you get to work, it's very quick and simple to put files there during the day as you come across them. Quicker even than emailing them to yourself. I have never used all the space on my 2G thumb drive with work files. I agree that you should give dial-up a try at first, maybe only to check email? And look for strategies that would help you do away with it completely. I also think this is an opportunity for you to find the positives in living an uplugged life at home. There are many of us trying to do that now.
posted by raisingsand at 10:08 AM on April 23, 2010

tl;dr but I've gotta chime in here to say l might be considered anachronistic but I use dial-up daily, essentially for retrieving/sending email and uploads to my very basic website. Also some websurfing but for the most part that's done with my laptop in public wifi places or using other machines at what's become quite a wide variety of libraries and the schools where I both teach and attend classes. I have no cable or broadband at home, yet occasionally read and post to MeFi, Facebook & etc over dialup there, on a PC running Windows98. At one time download mp3s was possible but my last couple attempts haven't been successful.
posted by Rash at 10:58 AM on April 23, 2010

desjardins, the OP has never indicated that they have a mobile phone, and VoIP options bring their own costs.

Philokalia, in my experience, both phone and cable companies often have lower-priced services that they don't advertise. It may be worth spending time on the phone, repeatedly asking if they have anything cheaper. You may well find they have some sort of $20/month plan and will wave the install fees if you commit to a contract (and the contracts are generally voided if you move to an area where they don't offer service). Just make sure that they aren't pushing you into some special offer that will double your price in three or six months.

If you are considering going back to dialup though, its worth reconsidering other compromises. For example, Google Voice could give you a phone number that you can forward to one or more other numbers. You could get a SkypeIn number ($60/year) or something similar for when you have a computer turned on. You could get a cheap pre-paid cellphone for other times.
posted by Good Brain at 12:33 PM on April 23, 2010

Perhaps I will just encourage anyone who needs to contact me to do so via postcard. I love getting postcards.
posted by philokalia at 1:42 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider, do you have a dialup modem? Most computers don't come with them anymore and haven't for a while.

I get stuck on dialup occasionally when I screw up the roll over dates for my broadband account and yeah, it's not much fun but the internet still works. Checking email is fine as long as there are no attachments, and I tell people off for sending me needless attachments anyway. I have thunderbird set so it doesn't download images in email, makes a big difference. Using adblock aggressively to remove cruft from websites makes a big difference (you can block things like header images if you know you'll never care about seeing them), as does turning off flash and shockwave. This strips out a lot of what makes webpages colourful and interesting but if you're going for content it doesn't matter. I don't know about youtube since I rarely use it but uploading to flickr just means setting it going then leaving it for a while, would be even easier if I bothered to make smaller versions of my photos rather than uploading straight from the camera. And FWIW metafilter works fine on a slower connection.

Downloading those pdfs is going to be painful to the point of not possible but I think a flash drive is a great solution there, can also be used for grabbing email attachments to open at home. I have no problems accessing the library databases or using google scholar etc at dialup speeds, I just can't really download the results. But lots of journals have an html full text option and those will open on dialup (particularly where the images and tables are separate links so you can choose to open or not), so there's actually a lot you can do even without pdfs. I'd do what I can via html then paste the pdf links I still need into an email, send it to work and grab them the next day.

It does change the type of sites you can use. You won't be downloading media files and will do better on more text oriented stuff. It also changes how you work to some extent, find a bunch of stuff, open it, then work on something else until it's ready to read. It sounds like you'll mainly use it for work so this shouldn't be a problem.

Superfast internet connections at home are nice and all but you can live without one. You just need to rely more on your work connection, adjust your expectations about when things will happen (multi-tasking helps), and focus on content rather than prettiness. And if it really does suck you can look at cable again later.
posted by shelleycat at 5:28 PM on April 23, 2010

You could try browsing at home through something like this, which strips out a lot of the extraneous stuff on web pages.
posted by djgh at 6:26 AM on April 24, 2010

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