When Aol released its quarterly earnings report earlier this month, many tech and business reporters scoffed that so much of its profit came from the 2.34 million customers who still pay—on average, $20.86 per month—for its dial-up Internet service.
The suggestion that those millions of customers are choosing dial-up freely or foolishly and not out of desperation is misguided. If my neighbors on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are any indication, those millions aren’t elderly or technologically indifferent: they are simply rural consumers. Outside of America’s cities and densely populated suburbs, broadband Internet, like so many services, is a tragedy of economics and supply. Many of my neighbors have dial-up Internet because that is the only kind of Internet they can afford or access.
I lose service when it rains. I lose service when it storms. I lose service sometimes, it seems, because the wind is blowing.
The promise of rural broadband has not quite reached us. There are some very spotty patches of broadband, on the fringes of a few towns, but most of us have been waiting for years for the DSL cable that Verizon was supposedly running to our census-designated places. Like Moses on Mount Nebo, I look at the promised land of the nearest town, where the utility company has deployed high-speed cable modems since 2001.
In the meantime, I have made do with dial-up and satellite Internet. But satellite Internet is expensive and unreliable. I lose service when it rains. I lose service when it storms. I lose service sometimes, it seems, because the wind is blowing. A few times a week, I drive to town to download a batch of documents or send large files from one of the restaurants that has wireless or from the public library, which offers free high-speed service.
My access to the Internet is a running joke with my online friends. There is even a Slack HQ screen dedicated to apologizing to me for the delay in loading that communication tool. The most reliable access to the Internet I have is on my Verizon smartphone, which can be made into a hotspot, but the data plan is much more expensive per gigabyte than most carriers and broadband providers. A few too many videos from friends of their children or photographs of their cats and, well, I’ve used up my data for the month.
So many of the apps and sites that shape the experience of everyday life when I am traveling or visiting friends in cities are simply non-existent when I am at home: not just things like Uber or Lyft, but Netflix and Youtube, Google Docs and Pinterest. Friends who run small businesses on the Eastern Shore sometimes rent office space in town just so they can purchase a broadband connection there to have guaranteed, 24-hour access to high-speed Internet for managing orders or doing research. There are simply no better options on the roads and streets where the broadband sidewalk ends.
Rural counties on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia have explored grants and pleaded with our legislators for more state and federal funds to extend the fiber-optic lines from the few cities and towns that already have it, since the Internet service providers insist there isn’t a large enough customer base to make it profitable to do on their own. Without incentives, these companies just won’t go “the last mile” to reach me and my neighbors.
In the meantime, many of the three percent of Americans who still pay for dial-up will continue to do so not because they want to, but because it’s the only Internet available.