Why Are 2 Million People Still Signed up For AOL's Dial-Up Internet?

Friday, August 08, 2014 - 09:55 AM

AOL released their latest financial report this week, and the biggest surprise for most people was that the company still makes a ton of money from subscriptions to dial-up internet. 

Over two million people are paying America Online $20.86 per month for the same crackly-modem-sound dial-up internet you might remember from the 90's. How is this possible?

There are theories. At Recode, Peter Kafka suggested that AOL is essentially running a business built on forgetfulness. He compared AOL users' behavior to his own lingering subscription to Netflix's DVD plan -- he hasn't used it for years, just because he's forgotten to turn it off. That seems plausible, especially since AOL was truly ubiquitous in the 1990's. On Quora, a former AOL product manager recently explained that when AOL 4.0 launched in 1998, the company monopolized the entire world's CD production capacity

When we launched AOL 4.0 in 1998, AOL used ALL of the world-wide CD production for several weeks.  Think of that.  Not a single music CD or Microsoft CD was produced during those weeks...They knew which words and colors were the most effective.  And they were constantly trying to best their previous efforts.  The Tide-colored CD marketing piece was the champion for a long time.  People kept popping them in computers and signing up.

I found further, anecdotal support for this theory when I tried to track down someone - anyone - who's still using AOL dial-up on purpose.  The only leads I got were from people who knew senior citizens (grandparents, older parents) who had neglected to cancel their subscriptions. 

But here's another, supplementary theory. According to a Pew survey from last August, 3% of Americans still use dial-up internet at home. That means that AOL actually only has a small chunk of the dial-up internet -- three percent of Americans translates to around 9 million people. It's easy to caricature dial-up users (they're old! they're forgetful!) but most polls suggest that for those 9 million, dial-up internet is mostly about access and poverty. Some dial-up users live in places that haven't been wired for broadband internet. Others can't afford broadband (dial-up can be cheap, as cheap as 10 bucks a month.)

Anyway, this will probably always be a bit of a mystery. It's unlikely that AOL will ever come out and declare that their customers choose them because they have no other option, or that their customers choose them because they're very forgetful people. I would love to know though, what secret reasons animate the hearts of the dial-up diehards. 


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Comments [20]

X-Graphix.com from Dayton, Ohio

You guys do know, that you won't lose your AOL email accounts if you drop AOL, right? I have been with AOL since the beginning. I started using AOL shortly after Windows 3.1 was released and I dropped AOL service in the 90's, but I still have my AOL email accounts to this day. As long as AOL is in business, or you don't delete your accounts, you will be able to retain your AOL email accounts.

Apr. 11 2015 06:21 AM

Hi everyone I am casting a series of video interviews about AOL dial-up subscribers - exploring the different opinions about and reasons why people still use this service. Would any of you be interested in talking with me? Please email me at everydaymencasting@gmail.com

Mar. 03 2015 03:15 PM

Lots of places in America have no access to high speed internet. Half of Washington State doesn't (unless you count a very crappy satellite system that costs thousands of dollars to install. Obama paid for it with "New Society" infrastructure bucks -- for the first year only).

Jan. 31 2015 03:48 PM
elainelv from Baltimore MD

It IS about cost. I have access to high-speed at work, and I have the flexibility to stay late for personal access to internet. I pay $9.99 mo. for dial-up at home, so I can check my email on my days off. It's fun to be a dinosaur, to hear the crackle of the connecting process!

Jan. 20 2015 11:24 AM
JAN from USA

I keep my dialup AOL because: I have a vacation place I stay at 3 months of the year. It doesn't make sense to subscribe to cable/satellite for whole year. (I don't have a smart phone either.)

Most of the time we drive 25 miles to use the library's internet. But if I have an emergency, i can dial into AOL. It's clunky, but it works.

Also, my spouse is convinced we will lost our AOL email address if we drop AOL!

Jan. 08 2015 08:45 AM
Adam from New York

I've been an AOL desktop user since 1993. Ok I'm 60 now but I'm so use to the desktop and have had the same e-mail since that I don't want to change. Plus why pay 70 a month to my broadband provider when I can pay AOL 20 a month plus 10 for the phone. 21 year AOL user.

Jan. 06 2015 07:42 AM
Scott from Virginia

Dial-up is ok, but why pay $20+ per month for AOL, when there are other dial-up options at half that price.

Dec. 13 2014 06:37 PM
Kelly from Virginia

I had AOL dial-up until 2007 when we finally switched to Verizon DSL. Now we have Cox High Speed Internet. However, I still use my AOL e-mail address that I've had since 1997. (Free, of course.) LOL

Dec. 11 2014 06:28 AM
Kitty from Inland Empire,Ca

there's no need to pay for dial up anymore you can now get it for free just Google it.

Dec. 03 2014 02:12 AM
Betty Thompson from Baretow Fl

.I love High speed internet!!! Had it for years. But I am back to using dial up because I am moving back to a Rural area . No Verizon DSL anything. No Brighthouse, No COMCAST. Sometimes we just don't have a choice so we choose dial up! Doesn't mean were dense or in poverty . Just means ..limited choices!

Dec. 02 2014 07:24 PM

Some of you freak me out.
It's about money, of course. This ISP could be one of the better ones.
I'm one of those weird people that pays my debts instead of buying what I cannot afford.
I recently heard that the median income is about the same as it was 20 years ago.

Nov. 06 2014 11:02 AM

Since smokers are brain damaged, many of them probably still used dial up.

Nov. 01 2014 10:26 PM

I was reading a petition a few days ago that was filed with the Supreme Court of the United States. One of the counsel listed on the document had a Juno.com email address.

Aug. 11 2014 02:53 PM
Jason L'Ecuyer

My uncle still actively uses AOL! He's not an old man. I think its just lazyness. I laugh everytime I visit and hear the classic AOL greeting.

Aug. 10 2014 02:23 AM
Zeneida Disla from New York, NY

One of my friends still uses dial-up. She has been out of work off and on for 6 years. She is constantly looking for work, but she has had a long, hard road. Dial-up is all she can afford.

Aug. 09 2014 10:10 PM
Douglas from El Paso

I used dial-up until last year when I moved in with someone who has cable. With dial-up, I could stream video and audio almost as easily as I can with cable.

Your hardware and software, more than your connection speed, determines your ability to surf the www. If your computer can't handle the latest version of javascript or can't accommodate the latest version of Adobe flash, some websites will not be fully accessible. I'd love to visit MSNBC.com, but my G4 Powerbook can't handle it. Otherwise, my Powerbook is a very capable machine, and I'd hate to discard it because of its inability to handle the excessive clutter of some websites.

The "digital divide" is really not about access to broadband networks but about the lack of money to buy an up-to-date computer or tablet.

Aug. 08 2014 08:23 PM
Maridel from NorCal

My sister was getting this charge and they freezes her e-mail account until she paid. She finally got a manager high enough to drop the charges so she could access her e-mail. It took months.

Aug. 08 2014 06:31 PM
Nick from RVA

I find that MP3s downloaded over dial-up have a richer, warmer, and smooth sound. Today's broadband MP3s have flat tones and a kind of harsh, jagged quality to them.

Aug. 08 2014 04:53 PM
Sam from Dallas

One major factor is that AOL users assume they must still pay the fee to maintain their email addresses and accounts. Funny, because AOL is about the worst email service out there: 1. no matter how many times you identify a message as spam, email from that user continues to appear 2. They can't even block spam that is fraudulently sent as if from AOL itself 3. When you delete messages in your spam folder, there is a warning message asking you if you are sure you want to delete spam. Yet no such warning exists for legitimate emails. 4. to even view your emails, you have to first view the AOL content page. AOL needs to force its executives/employees/programmers to only utilize its email service. This would lead to a better service.

Aug. 08 2014 01:43 PM
Eric Goebelbecker

Sure would be funny if someone had a few thousand of them dial in at the same time, and then call customer service when they couldn't get a line.

FTC funny.

Aug. 08 2014 11:05 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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