TORONTO - The next time you get frustrated because a website refuses to load instantly, or a streaming video has to buffer for a few seconds, think of the surprisingly large number of Canadians still on dial-up.
According to a few different estimates, there are hundreds of thousands of Canadians still travelling the information superhighway in the slow lane, who only get online after waiting for a series of bleeps, piercing shrieks and blurts of static to be belted out by their dial-up modem.
And that's just the beginning of their waiting.
"It's pretty dramatic," says Ross Kouhi, executive director for the National Capital FreeNet, a donation-driven service that provides free or inexpensive dial-up access to about 3,600 users in the Ottawa area.
"As you're demonstrating it to somebody it's always a little surprising to see just how slow things load."
The CRTC estimated that in 2010, there were about 366,000 dial-up customers across the country. The Convergence Consulting Group says residential dial-up subscriptions went from well over a million in 2007 to about 250,000 at the end of 2011. And surveys by the Media Technology Monitor suggested about three per cent of the population was using dial-up Internet in 2011.
For some Canadians in rural communities, dial-up is the only way they can get online. In 2010, the CRTC estimated that five per cent of the population had no access to high-speed Internet, with that rate nearing 16 per cent in rural areas. But for others, inexpensive dial-up is simply the only affordable alternative to high-speed access, which can start at $30 or more — and it's usually more — a month.
Matthew Suffidy of Ottawa is a longtime Internet user, who figures he's been online for nearly 20 years. But he's stayed with dial-up access at home the whole time and currently uses the National Capital FreeNet.
He makes plans to do any big downloading away from home and when he does dial in to the Internet, it's mostly just to access email, check TV listings, search something on Wikipedia or visit a few other sites.
He figures it was about 10 years ago that he started to notice web surfing was becoming sluggish with his 56K modem. A few years ago he found most surfing at home had become insufferable.
"If I really need something I'll wait for it but it's true that for some (sites) you have to wait quite a while to start some of them up," Suffidy says.
"Certain sites have become more cumbersome to use with dial-up because of increased content, for example, embedded Flash. Sometimes that's really a killer with dial-up Internet, if you have some kind of Flash content that's trying to show you a (video or ad) — that's going to totally destroy the connection."
With most of the population using increasingly efficient high-speed accounts, web developers have largely stopped trying to optimize their sites for slower connections.
Sports fans on dial-up would have a hard time loading up the Toronto Blue Jays' official website, which weighs in at a whopping four megabytes thanks to embedded video and a large number of photos and graphics. During a test, it took a couple of minutes of waiting for just the home page's background to load, and several more minutes for other content to gradually pop up.
Other graphic-heavy sites run by TSN and NHL aren't much better, with the home page adding up to more than a megabyte of content — which could take about five minutes or longer for a dial-up user to load.
Kouhi says there's still plenty of demand for inexpensive dial-up access, although few rave about the service's speed and the web surfing experience.
"A lot of people who were making due with dial-up are starting to find it's getting more and more difficult to use, so much of the content on the Internet is so rich and even though you think you're looking at a simple web page, quite often there's a lot of baggage behind it," says Kouhi, adding that it takes just a few minutes on dial-up for him to grow tired of the snail-paced speeds.
Some of the dial-up users he speaks with say they mostly stay off the web and only use email to connect with family and friends. But even email can be annoying on dial-up, especially when attachments are involved.
Kouhi has a sister who lives in a rural area and until recently only had dial-up access. His family learned to leave her out of group emails when it came to sharing photos, he says.
"You always have to remember to not send the big pictures to the one sister, to save her the grief, because she would say it would take her all night to download a big pile of photographs," Kouhi says.
"And she'd come back in the morning and they weren't anything she wanted to see anyways."