Monday, December 01, 2008

Dial-Up: the Digital Doldrums

We traveled to my wife's family over the Thanksgiving holiday, and for three days I was forced to use a dial-up connection to link to the outside world. It was frustrating and illuminating.

Watching the monitor on my laptop, I saw the incoming data stream start out at about 165 Kbps, then drop to around 40 Kbps, then bottom out at 2 Kbps. After about 10-15 seconds, the cycle would repeat. And of course, it didn't take much to break the connection.

Taking a half an hour to check e-mail was the frustrating part.

But trying to navigate to the various sites I regularly visit or use professionally was illuminating, because I understood why the Internet has so little appeal to a significant part of our population.

At 2 Kbps, even thumbnail images took a significant amount of time to load, which meant that graphic-heavy sites were just not practical to visit. When it can take a couple of minutes per page to open up a news site, then just reading the paper or watching the evening news seem really attractive options.

Even, which is mostly text, took a long time to load because (I believe) it's so link-intensive. So too with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. They just took far too long to load and refreshing the pages took a significant amount of time as well.

And of course, any site that used flash animation was difficult to use. I found myself getting increasingly irritated at the sites that make flash part of their navigation, as it significantly added to the page's load time. I usually had to wait about a minute before enough of the page loaded for the navigation tools I needed even appeared.

YouTube was even worse, and at 2 Kbps videos were virtually unwatchable. Even streaming audio was out of the question. So goodbye, Pandora and Internet radio! And also goodbye podcasts -- unless I wanted to leave my laptop connected to the phone line overnight to download new episodes.

In a recent poll, the Pew Charitable Trust asked people who weren't online why they weren't. The answers broke down like this:
  • 33 percent say they are not interested.
  • 12 percent say they don't have access.
  • 9 percent say it is too difficult or frustrating.
  • 7 percent say it is too expensive.
  • 7 percent say it is a waste of time.
And being on dial-up is just as bad. The long load times made me quickly lose interest in visiting sites. And I soon had no desire to explore the Internet at all. Yes, it was extremely difficult and frustrating. And after two hours online, I felt like I hadn't really done anything at all -- in other words, being online felt like a complete waste of time. So I experienced what about 49% of the people cited as reasons for not being online.

According to Pew, 27% of American adults aren't online at all, while 15% only have dial-up. After this past weekend, I'd say that puts 42% on the wrong side of the digital divide.

- Ralph

Day 164 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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