Ann McGinn uses an old black MacBook with a USB-dongle-style dial-up modem conecting her computer to a standard phone line Friday August 30, 2013. (Jean
Ann McGinn uses an old black MacBook with a USB-dongle-style dial-up modem conecting her computer to a standard phone line Friday August 30, 2013. (Jean Pieri/Pioneer Press) (Jean Pieri)

Marion Watson, a retired University of Minnesota staffer on a fixed income, says she "counts both sides of every penny," and is happy to do without the high-speed Internet most Minnesotans take for granted.

She has used a dial-up Internet connection -- the kind that requires dialing a phone number and achieving comparatively poky speeds -- since 1992.

Watson sees no reason to upgrade. She goes online mainly for email via her University of Minnesota account, so the classic system for accessing the Internet is all she needs.

And if a mail attachment is taking a long time to download? "Then I go away, and I come back later," the 92-year-old St. Paul resident said. "It will be there. I am not throwing money down a rathole."

Watson is among a small but significant percentage of U.S. adults clinging to dial-up, even as broadband becomes ubiquitous and Internet files become increasingly data-heavy and complex.

Roughly 70 percent of U.S. adults used broadband as of May, according to recently released figures from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That's up from 66 percent in April 2012.

Yet about 3 percent still are on dial-up connections, Pew said. Another 10 percent primarily use smartphones for Internet access, which Pew doesn't classify as broadband but says is increasingly speedy and reliable.

In fact, dial-up usage has stayed at 3 percent since 2011 after dipping from 7 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010, according to Pew, which recently released a "Home Broadband 2013" study based on a survey.


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Aaron Smith, the study's author, said he can only speculate about why some U.S. adults have stayed with dial-up even as broadband has become faster and more affordable. Pew has not included questions about dial-up in its surveys since 2009 because of the small sample size.

During the recent U.S. economic crisis, about a third of dial-up users told Pew that they regarded broadband as too pricey, and about 1 in 5 said nothing would get them off dial-up.

Broadband availability was an issue, too. About 15 percent of surveyed dial-up users lacked it.

"A small but non-trivial number of people still use that type of connection, while most people haven't thought about dial-up for a number of years now," Smith said.

On the business side, dial-up remains a small but stable revenue source for a number of Twin Cities Internet-access providers. These ISPs, including ipHouse and VISI, earn the bulk of their income from data-center management and business hosting; they keep their dial-up gear running as an afterthought.

Dial-up is "a small portion of the business, but we keep the (modems) running and we support them," said DeAnne Boegli, communications director for VISI's parent, TDS Communications.

"Some people just want email and do not want to participate in the greater online experience," Boegli said. "It's all about choice."

VISI, based in St. Paul, fully intends to shutter its dial-up business at some point -- while figuring out alternatives for its dial-up customers, Boegli added -- but this isn't imminent.

Some dial-up users might qualify for a low-cost Comcast cable-based broadband called Internet Essentials that is aimed at low-income families, notably those who have children in the National School Lunch Program.

Internet Essentials costs about $10 a month with Internet speeds that are exponentially faster than dial-up, and users have the option to purchase an Internet-capable computer for $150, according to Comcast.

Dan Wood, an ipHouse network engineer, says dial-up remains a viable technology, and not just for penny-pinching, set-in-their-ways home users. It is useful for ecological sensors and other kinds of remote-sensing equipment that need Internet connections but can get by with slower, intermittent ones, he noted.

The ISP's residential dial-up business "is not a moneymaker," added Wood, "but we still have plenty of users."

Many of these want to keep email addresses they had long used with local ISPs, such as Bitstream Underground, that ipHouse has acquired over the years. The ISP also took over the University of Minnesota's dial-up users when the U shut down its own dial-up services.

Some people have used dial-up "for decades and have never had to change anything," Wood said. "If it is set up correctly, and it works, there's no reason to fiddle with it."

Watson is among those happily using decades-old University of Minnesota email accounts via ipHouse dial-up connections and makes changes to her computer setup only when necessary.

She used a kind of Apple all-in-one computer known as an eMac (a cousin to the better-known iMac) for a time but had to upgrade when the University of Minnesota switched its email users over to Google Gmail-based service and the eMac's Web browser couldn't keep up.

Now she is using a flat-panel iMac purchased second-hand. Her phone line connects to a small dial-up modem that plugs into one of her Mac's USB ports, thereby affording her dial-up service for $100 a year. DSL, a slower kind of broadband, would run her $30 a month.

Nah, the onetime university of Minnesota communications instructor and radio-station manager, said. "I'm tempted, but I'm reluctant to spend my money."

Likewise, Ann McGinn of St. Paul tolerates her slow but affordable dial-up service even though emailed photos of her beloved 5-year-old granddaughter take a while to load.

"I'm retired, and I'm not going anywhere," the former attorney and journalist said.

McGinn, 75, is an online power user, after a fashion. She uses RSS, a system for keeping track of updates to her favorite sites via subscriptions or "feeds," consolidated in a "reader" app called NetNewsWire.

All this information takes a while to download via her USB modem, but once it's on her old Apple MacBook laptop, she has a kind of digital newspaper to keep her updated on the latest in news, politics, economics and the like.

"I don't get upset when it's slow because I'm used to it," she said. "It's adequate for what I need."

She also interacts with others around the country via a forum focused on women's issues. It is another low-bandwidth activity that works well over her VISI dial-up, which runs about $21 a month.

"There's so much to see and read ... slowly but surely," she said.