What was dial-up internet like?

Looking back on the dial-up internet era demonstrates how rapidly domestic internet connectivity has advanced in the last two decades

Tuesday, 12 April, 2022

If you’re reading this article on an ADSL connection with a maximum average download speed of 11Mbps, you probably resent your sluggish connection on a daily basis.

Yet twenty years ago, those connection speeds would have been an unimaginable luxury.

To anyone who doesn’t remember it, dial-up internet is merely a concept – something they’ve heard about but never really understood, like Ceefax or Prestel.

Even a brief explanation of dial-up internet’s limitations will put today’s complaints about momentary broadband dropouts and limited router WiFi range into sharp perspective…

Don’t touch that dial

Incredible as this will seem to a generation raised on smartphone connectivity and push notifications, the internet used to be appointment-to-view entertainment.

Going online involved inserting a telephone lead into a socket (effectively tying up the house phone and preventing landline calls), before requesting a connection to a single hardwired device.

A modem would screech for around 20 seconds as a connection was established with a PC or Mac, reminiscent of the loading sounds made by 8-bit computers like the Sinclair Spectrum.

You’d eventually arrive on a landing page created by your chosen ISP – AOL, Freeserve and so on. This would take quite a while to display properly because speeds were…not great.

Getting the bit between your teeth

We’ve previously explained the difference between bits and bytes, with a binary bit the smallest form of digital data in existence.

A thousand bits form a kilobit, and the number of kilobits or megabits which can be sent and received per second is the maximum connection speed.

The 11Mbps connection mentioned in our intro would throughput 11 million bits of data per second, which compares favourably to the 56 kilobits per second achievable on a dial-up connection.

Many households only saw a tenth of that – 5kbps. On a typical webpage, text might appear after a moment’s pause, with images laboriously downloading thereafter.

Although it was possible to send email attachments, make online purchases and share media files over peer-to-peer networks, sluggish speeds made everything a pedestrian process.

The first time your correspondent watched a music video online, in 1999, it was split across two separate 90-second files which each took around 25 minutes to download.

Picture and sound quality were also poor – the video filled around one sixth of a 15-inch CRT monitor, and the audio sounded (not unreasonably) like it was being played down a phone line.

That was because the media codecs of the time used data compression to reduce file sizes, with a detrimental impact on quality.

Remember this next time you curse Netflix for briefly buffering midway through a high definition movie stream.

What happened to dial-up?

In short, broadband arrived.

Although the UK’s first domestic broadband connection (installed by NTL in 2000) only offered speeds of 512kbps, it still blew dial-up out of the water.

Broadband was swiftly rolled out across the country at speeds which increased steadily as the UK’s cabling infrastructure evolved.

Telephone lines were restored to their original role, and the standalone modem was quietly phased out as concepts like Ethernet and WiFi rose to prominence.

Today, broadband and 4G/5G have rendered dial-up obsolete. No statistics are recorded on its use in 2022, though certain security systems and ATMs still rely on it.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s improved

We’ve previously written about the growth in dial-up nostalgia, which will seem a curious concept to any horrified Millennials reading this article.

A YouTube video of those iconic screeching sounds transports over-30s back to a more innocent time, when society was fearful of the Y2K bug rather than COVID.

Trolling and no-platforming were alien concepts back then, with little in the way of intrusive website advertising or tracking cookies. The online experience was undiluted, if sluggish.

The internet as a whole was a more exciting place to be during the 1990s, untainted by demands for instant gratification or today’s sky-high consumer cynicism levels.

We should be grateful for today’s rapid broadband services, but not everything has improved along with connection speeds…

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!