Do People Really Prefer Dial-up?

A newly released study suggest that there might not be pent-up demand for broadband in the United States after all. Or as an AP headline put it: Study says many dial-up users don’t want broadband. The numbers add up, but I don’t buy it. A better headline might have been: Dial-up users aren’t interested in paying high prices for slow Internet connections.

The study, by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, states that only 14% of users stick with dial-up because broadband isn’t available in their area. 35% stick with dial-up because they can’t afford broadband. 19% say they wouldn’t upgrade for any reason.

I expect this study to be used to justify decreased spending on broadband construction. After all, why expand broadband access if people just aren’t interested?

Not All Broadband Was Created Equal

But people often talk as if everyone has the same broadband options. They don’t. Choices can vary widely depending on area but tend to fall into categories:

  • dial-up
  • low-speed broadband (slow DSL or wireless)
  • ordinary broadband (DSL or cable modem)
  • high-speed broadband (such as FIOS)

Contrary to what you might think, pricing does not increase on the way up that list. Prices vary depending on area (and what the market will bear), not on transfer speeds. I have seen “broadband” that is only marginally faster than dial-up, yet costs many times more. In fact, I have found that low-speed broadband is often among the most expensive options available. This discourages the very people who ought to be the most interested in upgrading.

So Who Wants Broadband?

What about the people who are likely customers for broadband? Not everyone has the same needs or demands, and not everyone can justify the same expenses. Think about these four categories of people:

  • People who have dial-up and feel it is all they need
  • People who have dial-up and can’t afford or can’t justify the expense of broadband
  • People who have dial-up, but would buy broadband if it were available
  • People who have broadband

I know people who fall in each category. Only the people in the last category have broadband, but notice that only the people in the first category are uninterested.

So What Can You Do?

Sadly, not much. This is a case where the free market doesn’t help much; initial costs are so enormous that only the biggest companies need apply. And those companies have already proven that they aren’t interested. I have seen people suggest on message forums (in all seriousness) that people who don’t have broadband in their area should move. I’ve also seen people suggest that neighbors should band together and raise the money to wire their area for broadband. That’s not likely to work unless your neighbors are millionaires.

I feel quite gloomy about the future of broadband in the United States. I’m afraid that we are slowly moving to a divided Internet. There are already many websites that won’t work with dial-up connections, even though there is no practical reason why. As broadband penetration increases, the remaining dial-up users will be locked out from ever increasing portions of the Internet. And those users will likely be written off as unimportant and irrelevant.

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