About five percent of adults still use dialup, AOL or otherwise. Let’s assume that rounds out to about 10 million people. That’s a lot! That’s a whole 56k Belgium. Or narrow-band New York City.
Dial-up is still cheaper that broadband, but not by much. The reasons for living with 56k run like this: You don’t want to, or can’t, pay for broadband; you live in a rural area without broadband; or, most commonly, you have never even heard of “broadband.”
So I decided to see what life is like in internet hell, running at 56k speeds, in Internet Explorer 6, on Windows ME, at a resolution of 1024 × 768. (For reference, that’s about 25 percent more space than an iPhone screen.)
First, let’s get a little mood going. Remember this sound?
Ahhhhh. Here we go:
BuzzFeed: This here site took just under three minutes to load the main page; it was almost four minutes before all the ads loaded. It rendered pretty well except for a bunch of ugly boxes around the images at the top of the page.
CNN: 1:45 to load text, 2:13 to load images. The page works—like, you can click on most things—but it’s visibly broken.
Fox News didn’t fare well either, with a load time of 2:23 and a malfunctioning ticker.
Google: 16.8 seconds to load, but at least it looks like Google. A search for “BuzzFeed” took 10.5 seconds. Predictive searching works! Gmail only took six seconds, amazingly, but it looks nothing like today’s Gmail: It’s a stripped-down HTML-only version that actually looks almost exactly like Gmail 1.0, circa 2005. I don’t mind this one.
Facebook took 1:48. Despite the giant “Please upgrade your browser” notification the page looked fine and worked about 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent of the time it loaded an unstyled flow of text, broken images and animations.
Pinterest took 2:08 to load, and didn’t really finish. Pinning didn’t work:
Twitter loaded in just 10 seconds! But it’s just Twitter mobile, for phones. Logging in took about 25 seconds and left me with this:
Youtube: It took 37 seconds to assemble this jumbled mess of pastel rectangles. I tried to download Adobe Flash, to see if that would help. The browser crashed every time. Not that it would have mattered: Any modern streaming video is basically impossible on 56k. No Hulu, no Netflix.
This was not a contemplative experience. It was frustrating. If sites loaded, they worked so slowly that I quickly lost patience. Dial-up seems designed so that you never have to leave the comfort of your AOL inbox, or your MSN homepage.
Using a modern computer on 56k isn’t much better. Once you’ve loaded your Gmail, your Twitter and your Facebook, things go… fine. But the awful speeds prohibit movement: I found myself ignoring Twitter links, for fear that they might lead to an image or a video. YouTube may as well not exist. (I averaged one second of playback for every minute of loading. It would take just under an hour to get through “Charlie Bit My Finger.”)
There isn’t much to do about these millions of people other than to know that they exist, and that their internet isn’t like ours. Theirs is the internet of Cyberspace and Information Superhighways. It’s the internet of chunk-by-chunk image loading and web portals. And maybe we should give Aunt Grace, of Aunt Grace’s Incessant Email Chain Letters fame, a little more credit. It’s not totally her fault.