For many, the distinctive grating screech that accompanied millions of dial-up Internet connections back in the 1990s has softened to a barely audible buzz as they go online. But in a surprising number of households, the sound of dial-up tones can still be heard loud and clear.
Around 74 percent of the nation's adults had Internet access in their homes by 2010, but 6 percent were still relying solely on dial-up Internet connections to go online, according to a Federal Communications Commission report that looked at broadband access.
Just last year, AOL, whose more than 3.5 million dial-up users account for the bulk of the business, added 200,000 new dial-up customers to its roster.
And while Verizon Communications provides high-speed Internet services through fiber optic FIOS service or digital subscriber lines (DSL) to the majority of its 8.7 million subscribers, the company still provides dial-up Internet to more than 31,000 U.S. customers.
Why are so many are still using the old-fashioned Internet highway?
Their reasons can range from the expense of faster services to little need to hurry up and download all those movies. However, are those who cite cost as a primary hindrance paying the ultimate price by slowly phasing themselves out of the world of online commerce and interaction?
According to the FCC report, respondents still using dial-up cited monthly costs as a primary factor, followed by satisfaction with current services, sporadic Internet usage, reservations about entering long-term contracts, high activation costs, a lack of need for speedier service and a lack of availability for high-speed services in their areas.
Dial-up services allow users to access the Internet through a standard phone line, something that every household used to have. DSL uses phone lines modified to allow faster Internet speeds while not affecting the use of a phone or fax. Cable Internet runs the online connection through coaxial cable lines to provide high-speed access, while fiber optic Internet service transmits data through optical fibers that are often thin as a strand of hair.
Despite comparatively low-priced DSL Internet services -- which often more than double the fastest speed of traditional dial-up connections -- and efforts to broaden the national infrastructure that allows high-speed access, gaps between those who have adopted quality Internet access and those who haven't persist.
Bob Udell, chief operating officer of Consolidated Communications, the Mattoon, Il.-based telecommunications company that purchased the North Pittsburgh Telephone Co. in 2008, said many consumers have more options than ever to find a DSL or cable Internet plan with prices comparable to dial-up plans.
Approximately 30,000 to 40,000 people in the northern Pittsburgh region served by his company still carry landline telephone service, but he said "only a handful" are using the company's dial-up Internet service.
Customers still using dial-up in that area are most likely leaning toward what's familiar regardless of quality, he said.
"I think it's a stick-with-what-you-know habit," he said. "The price of dial-up isn't very different from what you can buy dedicated Internet service for at the lowest speed."
The FCC report cited the average monthly costs for dial-up Internet at around $22, while the average costs for broadband service was around $37.
There's no arguing that high-speed Internet availability has grown substantially over the past few years. The number of households with high-speed access has skyrocketed from 8 million in 2000 to nearly 200 million last year.
During the 2009-2010 school year, 97 percent of Pennsylvania's local education agencies reported having district-based network connections. The state's Act 183 of 2004 requires all incumbent local exchange companies -- telephone companies that have existed since AT&T broke into regional Bell companies in 1984 -- to adopt broadband services by 2015.
The National Broadband Plan aims to bring high-speed service to the entire country and dedicates $15.5 billion over the next decade from the existing Universal Service Fund to support the effort.
However, there is still a pervasive need for access in low-income and rural American communities and a lack of urgency to fill that need among Internet service providers, said Edyael Casaperalta, a program associate with the Whitesburg, Ky.-based Center for Rural Strategies.
She cited a 2010 Pew Internet and American Life survey that stated about half of the households in rural areas have Internet access at home. According to the FCC report, 21 percent of dial-up users said broadband services weren't available in their area and 10 percent of rural respondents had only dial-up connections, a figure much higher than the rest of the nation.
Since connecting rural communities won't pad most companies' bottom lines until long after upgrades are made, Ms. Casaperalta said there will be no rush to bring services to those citizens.
"Even with incentives and subsidies, companies still don't do it. It's not for their benefit," she said.
She rejected the notion that rural citizens aren't interested in the Internet as a dangerous stereotype that simply perpetuates the lack of digital knowledge that already exists among America's rural and poor communities.
The FCC study noted that 38 percent of respondents still using dial-up Internet cited issues of relevance (don't need faster speed, don't use the Internet very much). She said denying rural communities service for a lack of interest is unfair, particularly since few citizens realize how much more the Internet offers with high-speed service.
"We're getting blamed for not liking books when we haven't been taught to read," she said.
She emphasized that low-income and rural citizens have the most to lose if left behind in the digital revolution, noting it's no longer possible to assume one can apply for a job or check out the positions being touted by local legislators without having access to the Internet.
The FCC study makes it clear that low-income people who adopt broadband are more likely to use it to research topics that directly affect their futures than their more affluent counterparts.
"In general terms, lower-income broadband users are more likely to use their home high-speed connections to address important life issues, such as job searches or education, and for entertainment. Higher-income broadband users, however, are more likely than low-income ones to shop online, or contact government and bank [institutions]," reads the report.
In other words, any segment of the population that doesn't understand the importance of high-speed access is already one step behind, said Ms. Casaperalta.
"What we need to understand is that any community -- rural, suburban or urban -- needs high-speed Internet access to participate socially, economically and democratically," she said. "If we don't have this access, then we're on the outskirts of our society."
Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published February 15, 2012 5:00 AM