Dial-Up Is Still, Just Barely, A Thing

In an era dominated by broadband and wireless cellular networks, it might come as a surprise to many that dial-up internet services still exist in the United States. This persistence is not a mere relic of nostalgia — but a testament to the diverse and uneven nature of internet infrastructure across the country.

Yes, dial-up internet, with those screechy, crackly tones, remains a useful tool in areas where modern, high-speed internet services are either unaffordable or unavailable. Subscriber numbers are tiny, but some plough on and access the Internet by the old ways, not the new.

The Old Ways

The resilience of dial-up internet in the U.S. market is underpinned by several factors that ensure its continued relevance. Primarily, it caters to rural and remote areas where the infrastructure for high-speed internet has not been fully developed.

AOL weirdly still hosts a dialer program on its dial-up page, but it doesn’t actually have any dial-up functionality in it.

Despite significant advancements in telecommunications technology, there are still many regions in the U.S. where geographical challenges and the high cost of infrastructure development make it difficult for service providers to offer typical broadband or wireless services. In these areas, dial-up internet becomes the only feasible option for connecting to the digital world. For context, in 2019, census figures suggested just 0.2% of households used dial-up internet, a number surely even smaller today.

If you’re trying to get on the internet via telephone line today, though, you’ll find your options are pretty limited. Some big players like EarthLink and AOL stuck with dial-up for longer than most, but the companies no longer offer sign-ups on their websites. Not surprising, given the take rate must have been near zero.

You can apparently get free dialup internet access from NetZero, though you will still be paying for phone calls made when you dial in.

Instead, you’ll need to look at a company like NetZero, which offers a dial-up service for $29.95 a month. For that money, you get unlimited internet access with no time limit, which is probably easy to offer when customer numbers are so low. The company also touts its service as “HiSpeed Accelerated Dial-Up,” but it’s just some basic compression or caching system that doesn’t actually net you any data rate increase over the usual 56 Kbps speed of traditional dialup connections. It also offers an ad-supported “Free ISP” service offering up to 10 hours of usage per month, including webmail.

Juno is another ISP operating in the dial-up space, similarly offering “accelerated” service with unlimited hours for $29.95 a month. Hilariously, DSLExtreme offers unlimited dial-up too, despite its name. On an annual contract, it’s as cheap as $9.95 a month, or $12.95 a month if you’re paying as you go.

It’s easy to imagine that for some, the cost factor could play a significant role, but it’s not really the case. Regular broadband connections can be had fairly cheaply, as can cellular service with Internet access bundled in. Ultimately, dial-up isn’t really a cheaper way to get online at all, especially when you consider you have to pay for regular telephone service as well. It really only makes sense if you’re far away from any wireless or wired broadband infrastructure and it’s the only way you can get online. In this way, it can prove a useful way for those in remote areas to do simple tasks like access email or process credit-card payments.

You won’t do much beyond that, though, because dial-up tech is firmly stuck in the 1990s as far as speeds are concerned. At best, you’ll get something approaching 56 Kbits/sec if you’ve got a nice V.92 modem and a great connection. In reality, if you’re calling your ISP from a great distance from a rural area, you might find that your speeds are somewhat lower if the connection isn’t crystal clear.

Classics Never Go Out of Style

At least getting yourself a modem is still fairly easy. US Robotics still maintains a small range of 56K modems, and states that most of them are compatible even with Windows 11.

If you want a high-quality modem these days, you might find buying a refurbished US Robotics unit to be your best bet. They were built to last and look like they’re still living in 1989.

The 5670 is a PCI soft modem if you like your operating system to do the heavy lifting, with an MSRP of just $14.99. You can also source a high-quality refurbished USR3453C if you have a demanding business-grade application.

Other options include the 5686G external modem with an RS232 interface, or the 5639 soft-modem if you simply have to have a USB interface. StarTech does actually sell a hardware USB modem, however, if you’re looking for modern connectivity and a more reliable experience. Ultimately, though, much of what you’ll find for sale online is cheap new USB soft-modems, whereas most hardware modems for sale are used units from the early 2000s and before.

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine using dial-up internet in this era for anything other than pure historical interest. It’s too slow to reasonably load most regular websites, which have all been designed for the higher speeds of modern broadband connections. However, if you’re doing something that needs connectivity on the end of some dusty old rural phone line, you might find yourself getting familiar with the screechy kind of Internet once more.

86 thoughts on “Dial-Up Is Still, Just Barely, A Thing

  1. Having worked with cellular devices “in the field”, the benefit of dialup vs. GPRS is that it’s not flaky and prone to outages due to weather. If it’s on, it stays on, instead of cutting off randomly in the middle of the night, or regularly in the mornings when the sun passes behind the radio tower and swamps your receiver with radio noise.

    1. I used to work for a major retail chain and they still had small, crappy dial-up modems as backup for when broadband crapped out. For how cheap it is now, I’d be surprised other companies don’t do this to. Gotta make money somehow when the broadband goes down. Just be prepared to wait three minutes for a credit card swipe.

      1. UPS was still using dial up and DSL for their backup connection in hubs and centers as recently as 2016. Fortunately all the warehouse tasks were possible within the local environment so it didn’t have too much of an impact when the T1s went down

      2. Visa terminals used 300 baud dialup, because it was faster than 9600 and worked everywhere.
        They typically had about 1000 bits of message to send, and syncing a 300 baud modem only takes a few seconds, compared to ~30-45 for 9600. So yes, it burned 3 whole seconds sending the message instead of 1/10, it was still done long before a 9600 baud modem would’ve sent the first message bit.

      3. The problem has generally been solved by the POS device collecting the transactions locally, and then dumping the data when there’s a connection available. That’s how the handheld card readers work – they phone home at the end of the day, or when you press the button to print out the day’s transactions.

        The difference is that if you accept a transaction without checking in with the bank, or you bypass the PIN check by pressing the “signature” button, you take the loss if the card has no balance or it’s reported stolen or lost. Usually the store clerk hasn’t been trained on how to do that, or they’re not allowed to do it, so they just stand dumb and keep the line waiting for the connection to fail.

      1. It isn’t a question of bandwidth over VOIP. It’s a matter of how the VOIP encodes the audio. VOIP codecs have what amounts to a “dictionary” of sounds that are expected from voices. The encoder recognizes certain sounds and sends “reproduce dictionary entry X at volume Y modified to base frequency Z for time T.” Fax and modem sounds don’t sound like a voice, so the encoder can’t accurately describe things.

    1. Yes, you can. I’ve done it to connect to a government mainframe for file transfer. Any of the high bit rates are completely out. AFAICT 9600 bps is the theoretical maximum for the standard VoIP codecs, but I had more success running at 2400 bps.

    2. VoIP uses lossy compression (if multiple tones of different vollume happen at once and the louder tones masks the quiet tones being perceived by the human ear, only transmit the tones that will be heard)

      modems require what is sent at multiple frequencies and volumes simultaneously is received at the destination. Basically lossless with a bit of additional line noise.

    3. Yes, that works. It depends on various factors, though.

      Generally speaking, if a traditional telefax device works with a given VoIP codec, so will a computer modem.

      Late V.90/V.92, for example, are being DSP-based and can make out a connection method with the V.90/V.92 modem on the other side.

      Early 300, 1200, 2400 or 4800, 9600 Baud modems should work, too.
      These modems use a comparable simple technology.

      Especially the 110, 300 and 1200 Baud types are very primitive. They use Bell standard and FSK.

      They’re essentially same audio signals as with Packet-Radio on FM bands or shortwave.
      Except that AX.25 uses a better protocol, I think.

      1. Electricity meter data collection. Water meter level alarms at pumping stations. PoS terminals/credit card readers in the sticks at the village store with no BB. Monitored intruder alarm systems. Telecare alerting pendants for the elderly….. Lots of use cases where there is no existing IP infra in place and high volumes of deployment make the transition very costly. Many of these use cases dont really need the fastest speeds and upto 9600 baud works pretty well on most voice optimised VOIP codecs but can be improved upon with minor tuning to the jitter and packet drop aspects of the codec.

        1. PoS terminals in remote locations use sat internet. I have implemented VHF/UHF Point-to-Point radio for telemetry. In fact, with the availability of sat internet, is there any longer a need for dial-up, although it’s what I started with, and it’s kinda comforting to know it’s still there.

          1. The terminals I’ve used in the past could operate without any connection and simply collect the transaction in memory, and at the end of the day you take them somewhere with a cellular signal or wifi and punch in the tally command to transmit the sales to the bank.

            In the old old days we had carbon copy slips that you’d put in a “card mangle” and press the embossed numbers onto a bank transfer note. That still works with debit and credit cards, but the banks get really pissy about you using them and demand exorbitant fees to process such paperwork. Still, it’s a fallback if you need one.

      2. There are uses.

        Let’s imagine some old PPC Macs may need a firmware update/upgrade in order to run OS 9.x and to handle USB pen drives.

        Which causes an chicken and egg problem, because you can’t get the upgrade into the computer.

        Even if you’re using a CD-R for the internal CD-ROM drive, the firmware update/upgrade perhaps cannot be read, because the Mac filesystem has meta data not found on ISO9660.

        So Mac OS 7 or 8 won’t recognize the file as an executable, even if the file extension is correct.
        Mac OS 9 may be smarter here, but it can’t be run at this point.

        So using the internal modem to connect to the internet and download an firmware upgrade fixes this.

        The web browser may recognize the update file via MIME type and saves it correctly on Mac’s filesystem.

        1. I get that it’s intended as an example, but if you have a medium such as a CD, then working out the software to write a correct file to this is probably simpler and faster than a few hundred bps modem..

          1. Only if you have another Macintosh with a traditional Mac OS and a Mac with a supported CD writer. And a stack of blank CD Rs or CD RWs.

            Older PPC versions of Toast run from Mac OS 8/9 to 10.4 “Tiger”, for example.

            Newer, Unix based versions of Mac OS normally use file extensions to determine file type, similar to Windows.

            By default using modern software they nolonger store data in the proprietary Macintosh file system for CDs.
            Rather use ISO9660+Joliet or UDF, or something.

  2. I find it strange that nobody has made an open source v92 modem. I know cup modems were commonly made, perhaps the phone line transformers were too hard to source. i guess people moved on when they became too expensive to run. i know i did.

    1. Yeah. Also, be careful about not buying a winmodem. US Robotics makes some too. Its basically a DAC and the driver generates the tones. Not supported in Linux. Get a real modem.

      1. There’s a parallel development with traditional Packet-Radio TNCs and soundcard solutions (Baycom modem/PC-COM, Flexnet, Direwolf, soundmodem).

        The good thing about a dedicated, intelligent modem is stability and latency, I think.
        It’s always being ready and keeps the connection, no matter the workload that the PC has.

      2. Almost three decade on, and winmodems are still screwing people over.

        Then again, after almost three decades, why haven’t these been hacked to work with other operating systems?

        1. Because there’s nothing there to hack. The ‘modem’ is so cheap because LoseModems are basically just the analog electronics needed to interface to the phone line, & the driver running on the host system is the modem.

    2. The BNC network cards, 10Base2, had this problem, I remember.

      An ordinary 1200 Baud modem from the 1980s can be built quite easily, I think.

      Late 90s technology was more complicated.
      They used some proprietary DSP chips, foremostly.
      To handle things like QAM.

      These late modems usually had an upgradeable firmware in an EEPROM or Flash ROM.
      In order to adapt to newer modem standards.

      To the outside, they still were acting like ordinary Hayes serial modems (USB, RS-232, RS-422 etc).

      WinModems and soundcard modems (AMR slot etc) were competing technologies.



  3. Ah, nostalgia. Back in the day when 14.4 was standard and 28.8 and 33.3 were options, I dialed into a PPP connection at 300 bps just to see what would happen. The connection was rock-solid but a wee bit on the slow side. A not-so-long time later the ISP stopped allowing sub-2400bps connections.

    Still, 300bps with “local ISP” latency and imperceptible jitter beats a laden swallow (either kind) with a not-to-heavy roll of standard paper tape strapped to its leg.

    1. 300 baud Hayes modem was my first one while in college. Then a 1200 baud for the rest of my college years if I remember correctly. Obviously after college, graduated through the other bauds as they came available… Fun years.

      1. Wasn’t ethernet back then. Simply connecting to VAX system at school. A point to point access point gave you access to a terminal interface. Allow you to do work on the VAX remotely and upload/download files.

    2. Back when I had a 300 baud modem, I mostly just used it to read email with elm or pine or some other vt100-based client, and maybe look at usenet, and while it was annoying to watch the text slowly show up, it really wasn’t that bad. I kind of miss the text-only Internet.

        1. In those days, the internet was a joke.
          What held the world together were international network based on X.25 protocol, using the telephone line connections around the globe.

          There were databases, bank computers, ATMs and online services.

          By accessing a PAD, someone could call a remote computer in another city, state or country.

          Without paying expensive telephone bills, as being usual with BBSes or mailbox systems. They were being kid’s play by comparison.

          The “internet” and that TCP/IP and UDP crap was largely irrelevant at the time, as well.

          If it wasn’t for US universities and the US military, it would have been ending up falling into obscurity.

          Really, the internet is being overrated. Just like smartphones are.

          If the internet hadn’t existed, other
          technologies of the day had taken its place.

          Like the Videotex systems, for example. BTX, Minitel, Prestel.

          Here in Europe, they had developed without help of the internet.
          By late 80s, they already had started to co-operate.

          It was possible to reach users from other networks, exchanging messages.

          If the internet hadn’t been opened for the public in early 90s, those platforms had still been available, as an alternative.

          Or let’s take CompuServe, Quantum Link, Compunet, Genie or AOL.

          They were independent of the internet, using X.25 connections.

          They could even serve as a gateway for each others.

          Here in Germany, a CompuServe user could dial into CompuServe by using the rival, BTX.

          Alas, these details are being forgotten these days.

          In a few years, the internet and the freakin’ smartphone will be praised as the beginning of digital age.

          Because, before it, we used to live in caves and cottages. Or so they may tell history. 🙄

  4. Those dial-up connections were about good enough for sending/checking e-mails and chatting via messenger.

    CompuServe and AOL and other online services with their native forums (not internet) had equally low demands, too.

    Internet and its corresponding technologies such as TCP/IP, HTML,JPG and so on were more bloated by design.
    – With the exception of telnet and other simple protocols.

    Even back in the 90s, the modem never was a good internet experience beyond e-mail.

    We all hoped for an ISDN or T1 line. Universities and schools had better intetnet connections than most home users.

    Internet Cafés, too. I remember visiting one on a regular basis, for both hobby and school works.

    Especially ISDN lines were cool, thougg
    I remember the latw BBS/mailbox scene, when ISDN ports (phone numbers) were available to dial up to.

      1. The average size of a webpage in 2024 is 2.5 megabytes (and I regularly see significantly larger pages). That would have taken me like 30 minutes on the last dial-up connection I used.

        Can you imagine a ’90s CPU trying to run the kind of JS common in today’s pages? Or even worse, the RAM usage — totally normal for a modern browser to use 100MB+ RAM per page (and possibly way more). Imagine the swapping trying to run that on a computer with 16mb of RAM? HD thrashing for a month

        1. HTTPS is an other disease.
          It’s too complex for the original unix hardware the internet developed on.

          Don’t get me wrong, HTTPS is fine for home-banking and other important uses.

          But forcing it onto the users is against the original internet philosophy of providing freedom.

          Traditional HTTP should still be available as an alternative, a fallback, if the user is accepting the risk.

          E-Mail still uses 7-Bit ASCII for a reason, after all. Interoperability is an important feature in our digital age.

    1. My mom used dialup until her Dialup ISP suddenly vanished one day and stopped answering the phone;
      by then she’d already had to get cable TV (because the analog-digital transition broke access to her PBS station), so she got cable modem service, which was a big improvement for her kids when we visited :-)

      Her vision got bad enough in her 70s that email was about all she could read; the web was too hard to manipulate, and dialup was more than fast enough for email.

  5. Interesting timing for this article. Just gained a new client yesterday who has 270 pump stations which routinely “phone home” at 14.4K to report status. OK, not ‘internet’ but still…

  6. “Yes, dial-up internet, with those screechy, crackly tones, remains a useful tool in areas where modern, high-speed internet services are either unaffordable or unavailable. ”

    Or when the bottom fell out of the economy and dial-up was that affordable choice. Hopefully that’ll never happen again. ;-)

      1. It was ad supported if you used their dialer. If you just switched to using the Windows dialer; well they still added adverts to every web page, but there was less bloatware.

    1. First time I used WireShark (back when it was Ethereal) was to sniff the encrypted username/password that the NetZero client sent on connection so I could dial in with normal Windows DUN instead (the NetZero client displayed an always-on-top banner ad at the bottom of the screen).

  7. Every now and then I get the idea that I want to find some hacky buy useful way to use dialup for something. I think about it… And think about it…

    Got nothin!


    I mean, don’t get me wrong. Soundmodem over some sort of audio channel has potential to be useful for something. But the whole POTS line with it’s levels, ring signal, etc… you aren’t going to connect an RJ11 to the mic input of a transceiver and use a dialup modem that way.

    1. How about modem games on DOS? ;)
      Or remote-controlling a distant PC?



      Playing a game of chess via modem or acoustic coupler used to be a thing, too.


      But really, an analog modem still is useful as a replacement for a null-modem connection.

      For example, I think that modem-to-modem connections can be useful if there’s an unused 2-wire/twisted-pair cable connection.

      Say, going from the basement/cellar to the top of the building. Or across a street. Something like that.

      Building a little “house telephone” kind of “landline” isn’t so difficult.

      You can build your own, analog PBX quite simple. For two phones, I mean.
      All you need is a few diodes, caps and a transformater.

      The transformer is for providing the AC power that phones/modems expect to see when ringing the bell (otherwise, it’s DC). It’s a harsh humming sound (50/60Hz), in most simple way (simple circuit).

      There are DIY circuits on the internet, I think. They can explain things better than me.

      Please everyone be careful with AC, also Use a lower voltage, say up to 24 or 36v.
      Something that’s considered to be safe. And don’t forget to attach a fuse and limiting resistors.
      Ideally, the power outlet is connected to an RCD, too.

      Most phones and modems don’t need the full voltage, also. Take DSL modem routers with RJ11/TAE jacks, for example. They’re using s lower voltage, too.

      On the other hand, there’s PhoneNet.
      You can still find those vintage PhoneNet adapters (and clines) and use them to build a Macintosh-style network.

      I think there’s DOS software, even. But even if there’s not, a Macintosh running a DOS session (SoftWindows, Soft PC, Virtual PC etc) and using folder-sharing might work as a bridge. :)

  8. Fun fact, Palm/Handspring Treo PDAs, some of the earliest smartphones, had the capability to make dial-up Internet connections through their cellular modems, which would’ve been a ludicrously expensive way to get online. The ones I had (180 & 650) actually didn’t have WiFi, they could get online via this insane cellular dial-up connection, earlier versions of what we would now consider “ordinary” cell data, or…Bluetooth-to-PC tethering!

    1. Hi, yes, good point. To my knowledge, some mid-90s phones had this ability, too.

      I think Nokia Communicator from 1996 was among them, too. Not sure, though.

      Anyway, it was possible in the Windows 3.1 and System 7 era for sure.

      These days weren’t much different to our current times, really.
      Except that things had more style and were more social.

      There even were tablet PCs running Windows (Windows for pen computers)..

      VR was available, too, with same old promises (use in medicine, to make disabled people make virtual travels, for communications, product planning etc).

      There even was voice recognition and “smart home” ideas.
      Or 1980s cars with CRTs having touch screens.

      But so is life, I guess. At some point (every few yeaes!), everything old is new again. ;)

    1. Yes, I thought one of the major reasons for Elon Musk to deploy a satellite network was so that people in remote areas could access much higher data speeds.

    2. One phone. If there is more, the link will be congested.

      One satellite can only transmit so much data, and the satellites are on a 400 mile grid, so there aren’t that many satellites you can see at any location at any one time. Divide 17 megabits by a thousand users and what do you get?

      17 kilobits. Slower than dial-up and with a huge latency on top.

  9. I don’t know if it’s still common but ATMs (into the 2010s) used to use dial-up. Once in a while, one would be misconfigured and you’d be able to hear it dialing and screeching. As others have mentioned, there’s a compelling case to be made in regard to reliability. Conceivably, they could continue to work during a power outage if they had a UPS and a copper phone line. Someone mentioned gas pumps still using dial-up and I’d wager that there are many other industrial use cases which demand reliability and/or whose hardware was made according to specs which are slow or unlikely to change.

    1. ATMs used to be connected to non-internet platforms, too.

      To my knowledge, here in Germany ATMs had used a Datex-P connection (X.25).

      In the 80s/90s, home banking was being done via Datex-J (BTX, T-Online classic).

      The home banking software wasn’t using the internet protocol, at all.

      Users of T-Online as an internet provider were experiencing a “fallback” to the CEPT-based T-Online Classic access if they used dedicated banking software.

      I remember how the T-Online 4 software would call T-Online Classic during dial-up and then establish a connectionto the bank computer of your bank (in BTX days this was described as an external database).

      This was much safer than the damn internet.
      Quite some of us Germans had preferred this much more secure kind of home banking, up until the T-Online Classic service had ended in late 2000s.

      To put this into context, this internet alternative had existed up until the release of Windows Vista!
      Nearly as long as ISDN and Datex-P were being available. 🙂

  10. they took.our dial up away,in thd last 6 months
    but most people had switched to cellular data
    but further down the road there will be dial up
    and in the deeper ,steeper,valleys,no chance of
    cell service
    I think that in some places(northern outport fishing villiages) they are putting up
    sat links and local wireless or wired services

  11. Telco worker here — most people in rural markets rely on DSL for their internet connection. For at least one of the rural carriers I know of, dial-up is about a third of the price as their DSL package, so for that alone I’m sure there’s users.

  12. I downloaded the source code for the GNU C compiler (about 5 MB compressed tar file back in the day) over a 1200 baud modem. It took about 12 hours! I needed a better compiler for my AT&T 3b1 than what was provided with the system.

  13. My first dial-up modem was 1200 bps, and my first online service was GEnie (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEnie).  It was text-only, and getting email to someone who had a different service was a challenge.  As I moved up later, there was AOL running on GEOS under DOS, and then another service I can’t remember.  During the 2nd gulf war, I still had dial-up, 14.4kbps IIRC, maybe not even 28.8kbps, and definitely not 56kbps, let alone our later DSL speeds, not to mention our current fiber-optic speeds, yet I was able to see some news videos, with a very small video frame and only 16 colors (two pixels per byte, after data decompression), very primitive, but at least it was actual video, not still pictures, and had sound.  Then we got DSL Extreme (mentioned in the article).  Although some people think DSL is super slow, two or three of us in the family could be watching videos at the same time, with no slowing.  Verizon kept pushing us to switch to FiOS, saying the copper was costing them too much to maintain; but what they offered would have cost us more!  We didn’t switch to fiber optic until my wife had to teach online and apparently every frame in Zoom requires the entire bandwidth, so it was like having to watch 16 or 20 videos at once, and the DSL couldn’t do it, at least not at the speeds available at our location.  Back when dial-up was pretty standard, I remember National Semiconductor having ads in the electronics industry magazines touting that their site didn’t waste your time with irrelevant graphics.  That’s something I wish every company would stick to, even today.

  14. I’ve had to use it a couple times here in the last couple of years, I still carry a USB modem and acoustic coupler with me just in case I end up in a weird situation, it’s gotten better yes, but there are still huge swaths of land with no cell coverage and landlines

    1. What on earth do you do for work? (Assuming it’s occupation related) I just am trying to think of something that you’d need a dial-up connection for. Solar fields or wind farms?

  15. When I was younger I loved the sound of the modem connecting. It somehow was a promise of hitherto undiscovered pleasures awaiting me that day. Pity it tied the phone line for hours.

  16. I’d like to say something about how these “remote rural areas” managed to get wireline telephone service (heck, ELECTRICAL service) back in the early- to mid-20th-century, but are being left high and dry for broadband. But that would get into politics.

  17. If you live in an area that is too far away to get either fixed-line broadband or some form of wireless, surely something like Starlink makes more sense than ancient slow dial-up.

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