Star Ledger (New Jersey), July 6, 2008: They are online but falling behind fast

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Posted by afriedma July 06, 2008 08:02AM

Remember dial-up internet access? The squeal of the modem. The epic waits to download files.

While much of the world has adopted high-speed broadband internet access, a surprising number of Americans are sticking with slower dial-up service, according to a new study.

Many dial-up devotees are elderly, minority or low-income internet users who can’t afford the cost of connecting their home computers to faster broadband networks. Others are simply stubborn and don’t want to change.

Whatever the reason, the widening gap has researchers calling it the new digital divide.

Because dial-up can’t handle as much data, the system is too slow to easily download music, view videos on YouTube or take advantage of many of the internet’s interactive aspects, said John Horrigan, associate director of research at the Pew Internet & American Life project and author of the study.

That becomes a problem when more of our lives — from socializing to participating in the political process — encourages us to be online.

Dial-up service connects to the internet using a traditional phone line that can handle only limited data. Broadband reaches the internet through a cable television connection or other lines that can carry more data at faster speeds.

The Pew study found 55 percent of adult Americans now have broadband internet connections at home, up from 42 percent in 2006.

But 10 percent of Americans still have dial-up, according to the report. More than half of the dial-up users said they have no interest in upgrading to broadband.

The report also found African-Americans and families making less than $20,000 are switching to broadband more slowly than the rest of the population.

“The gaps in access matter,” said Steve Rains, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Arizona.

Rains recently used data from the National Cancer Institute to study how people use the web to get health information. He found those with broadband access got more medical information and participated in support groups more often than those with dial-up.

His research also found patients with dial-up were disproportionately elderly, rural and have low incomes, groups that probably need health information the most.

“The folks who don’t have broadband access are historically the have-nots in terms of health care,” Rains said.

But many dial-up fans say researchers and politicians are making an issue out of nothing.

“For average people, it’s just not a problem,” said Mark Goldston, chief executive officer of United Online, a company that includes the internet providers NetZero and Juno.

Goldston said he still relies on dial-up when he travels and at home when he is checking e-mail or surfing the web. His company still has hundreds of thousands of dial-up subscribers who happily pay less than $10 a month for internet service, even if it means they have a slower connection, he said.

In recent months, Goldston says he has seen a slowdown in the number of people abandoning dial-up for broadband. He attributes it to the sagging economy.

“If you’re paying $4 or $5 for a gallon of gas, being able to sign up for internet access for less than $10 a month — that’s meaningful.”

The Pew study found the average broadband user is paying $34.50 a month for high-speed service, while the average dial-up user is paying $19.70.

DialUp 4 Less said business is booming for its $9.95-a-month deal for internet access. Users know they can’t use YouTube, and it may take hours to download a song to their iPod, said Dan Holtzman, one of the company’s owners.

“Some people just need to find the least expensive way of going online,” Holtzman said. “The reality is, it serves its purpose.”

Those using dial-up shouldn’t expect their connections to get any faster, said Curt Coover, owner of US Netizen, a dial-up service provider. Hardware companies have largely abandoned researching ways to develop faster modems, assuming most people will switch to broadband as prices drop.

As long as there are rural areas without broadband access, low-income families on fixed budgets and people who just don’t like change, dial-up will be around, said Coover.

“A lot of people say it’s a declining industry, but it’s not a dying industry,” he said. “People need it.”

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