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What is Dial-Up Internet Access?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Dial-up Internet access is a connection type that operates through a standard telephone line. By running the telephone line to a modem device in the computer and configuring it to dial a specific phone number, the computer can connect to the Internet. This connection type is usually inexpensive, but slow, and may not be adequate for users who use the web for multimedia and other high-bandwidth applications.

How It Works

Dial-up internet access may require an external modem that connects to the computer with a cable.
Dial-up internet access may require an external modem that connects to the computer with a cable.

This type of Internet access is offered through a number of Internet service providers (ISPs). Most ISPs lease a set of telephone numbers — sometimes local, sometimes national — that allow a computer to send information to network pipelines that feed into the Internet. Subscribers to the ISP normally pay a monthly or yearly fee for online access at any time of the day or night.

Before a person can subscribe to a dial-up service, he or she must have a computer and the right type of modem. A modem is a device that converts digital data into signals that can be sent over the phone line; some models fit into a free slot inside the computer, while others are external and connect to the machine with a cable. A telephone line is plugged into the modem to connect it to the phone system.

The modem is controlled by software in the computer which allows the user to set up a profile for the ISP, which will tell the modem what phone number to call and how to communicate with the service. Once the modem calls the phone number and makes a connection, a "handshake" takes place in which information is exchanged between the computer modem and the remote server. The subscriber chooses a username and password or has one assigned by the ISP, and this information is transmitted by the modem to allow the user to connect to the service.


Dial-up service is usually the least expensive type of Internet access, and may even be free in some places, although often with advertising added to it. It is also available to anyone who has a phone line, so there's no need for a separate connection to be added to a home. Most computers already have modems installed, so there's often no additional hardware to buy to start the service.


The biggest problem with dial-up Internet is that it's slow. Due to the limited bandwidth, which is the ability for the modem to send and receive data, downloading large files can take a very long time. Most dial-up services operate no faster than 56 kilobits per second (kbps); downloading a file that's several megabytes (MB) large would likely take several hours, which makes it too slow for streaming video or music. Saving copies (called "caching") of frequently visited pages and other software tricks can speed up the experience in some cases, but most people who want to access a lot of multimedia will likely find the speed unsatisfactory.

Dial-up Internet also depends on the regular telephone line, which means that a home must pay for regular phone service to connect. The phone cannot be used for any other purpose, like voice calls, while the computer is using the line in most cases, and any disruption to the line will typically break the connection. In most situations, the user must dial in to the service each time he or she wants to get online, which means that the connection isn't always on; it's also likely to disconnect if the connection isn't being used for some period of time. In addition, only one computer can use the phone line at a time.

Alternative Options

Some of the most common, faster Internet options include cable and DSL (Digital Subscriber Line or Dedicated Service Line), although these alternatives may not be available in all areas. Like dial-up, DSL uses a regular telephone line, but it transmits data on a digital frequency rather than the standard analog so that the telephone and Internet can be used at the same time. Cable Internet service uses the same lines that bring cable television into the home. Both provide a 24-hour a day Internet connection, allowing subscribers to leave the computer actively connected to the Internet all of the time. These services can be much faster than dial-up but may also be more expensive.

In some places, Internet users may have other options for connecting, including satellite, fixed wireless, integrated services digital network (ISDN), leased lines, and fiber optics like fiber to the premises (FTTP). These technologies are all broadband, meaning that they can transfer data at at least 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps). Unlike dial-up, broadband connections are usually much better at downloading multimedia content.

Internet Options and Speeds

Data Transfer Rates

Dial-Up Access 56 to 64 kbps
ISDN Basic Rate Interface Up to 128 kbps on dual channel
Satellite 6 Mbps or higher
DSL Up to to 8 Mbps for regular DSL, but 250 Mbps for the most advanced standard (VDSL2). The speed is lower the farther the user is from the network hub.
Cable Up to 20 Mbps, but usually less
Fixed Wireless Broadband 30 Mbps or higher, but a clear line of sight between the access point and the end user is required
Leased Lines: T1 and T3 1.5 Mbps and 45 Mbps
FTTP Up to 100 Mbps

Discussion Comments


I don't know why, but I have a great interest in Dial-up. Thanks for the information.


what are the advantages of dial up and dsl?


this is too good, it helped me a lot.


@ anon51014: Look on the back of your modem. There should two connectors. You'll need two phone cords. Plug one into the wall, the other into your phone (modem will be so marked). If your modem only has one phone connector, follow the advise in post #7. Either way, you'll only be able to use one device at a time.

To use both, you'll need to get a second phone and wire each device directly to its respective wall jack.


If telephones are so fast, why isn't dial up?


To Anon51014: Go to a drugstore or some place that sells phone cords, etc. Look for a little part that has 1 plug for the wall jack and two plugs for the telephone and pc lines. You still won't be able to use your phone--but hey, don't you have a cell?


Although it's true that dial up internet isn't comparable to today's broadband speeds, you can still achieve a very fast browsing connection that is both stable and secure via some ISPs. In some instances, dial up internet is now being offered completely free of charge.


So I think dial up is the slowest service for browsing however it's a very good alternative when the service breaks down for example when your DSL modem doesn't work because there's no synchrony.


I still use dial-up since broadband isn't available in my area. My ISP offers me an accelerator so browsing isn't so bad but large downloads can take some time.


Anon 51014: get a 2-in-1 phone jack adapter and plug it in the wall jack. Now you can attach two lines to the jack. Run one to the phone, the other to the computer. You can still only use one at a time, but you won't have to plug/unplug wires.


Every time I want to use dial-up, I have to unplug the telephone line from the jack and plug in the computer phone line. There has to be another way! What am I doing wrong?



I stuck with dial-up for years; when I wanted to download something, I would set it to run before I went to bed at night and hope it was done in the morning. Since I went to high speed, though, I can't imagine having that much patience.

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    • Dial-up internet access may require an external modem that connects to the computer with a cable.
      By: OlgaLIS
      Dial-up internet access may require an external modem that connects to the computer with a cable.