BT pulls the plug on 56K dial-up

BT pulls the plug on 56K dial-up

BT is finally pulling the plug on its long-running dial-up internet offering, with the last modem bank to be permanently switched off on Saturday.

This weekend marks the end of an era as telecommunications giant BT finally pulls the plug on its long-running dial-up internet service, forcibly ushering in the age of broadband.

For younger readers, dial-up internet was the way browsers of a certain age got online in the dark old days. Using an analogue modem - which literally transformed data into audible screeching, and listened for the response - connected to a Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) line, it was possible to browse the internet at a theoretical peak speed of 56.6Kb/s. In reality, this speed was rarely achieved with around 48Kb/s - or less than a three-hundredth Ofcom's average UK broadband speed - being as good as it ever got.

Dial-up connections over telephone lines predate the internet, however. Modems running at 300b/s - yes, that's bits per second - were a common way of accessing remote time-share systems in the early days of computing, with the device on a user's desk more often than not being a dumb terminal or even teletype printer with little to no processing capabilities of its own.

As the microcomputing boom took flight in the late 70s and early 80s, bulletin board systems (BBSes) became increasingly popular. A text-only equivalent to modern web forums, many offered connection speeds as high as 9,600b/s - which soon became limiting when users discovered ways to share pictures, sounds and program files by encoding them as ASCII text.

Modem technology improved over the years to the heady heights of 56Kb/s, but the birth of the internet spelled trouble for analogue connections. Suddenly, text was playing second fiddle to graphics, and soon animations, streaming audio and even video - and the birth of the broadband age began. Now, Ofcom claims an average broadband speed in the UK of 14.7Mb/s - something even supercomputing systems could only have dreamed of a few short decades ago.

The most common broadband connection type in the UK, Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), offers advantages beyond improved speeds, too. Those who remember dial-up will recall with no fondness at all the per-minute billing that could see larger downloads costing an absolute fortune, and even when BT and others introduced an 'unlimited' Freephone option for a monthly subscription fee this came with a strict two-hour per-session connection limit.

Using spare bandwidth on the copper wires as a carrier for the digital signal, ADSL also means you can be online without tying up the phone line - allowing heavy users to finally ditch the second line they had relied upon for voice calls.

Now, the familiar screech of a 56K handshake is going away with BT finally pulling the plug on its long-running dial-up system. Although the company will still offer dial-up connectivity through its Plusnet subsidiary, customers currently with BT connections will be forced to switch - or, if their lines support it, to upgrade to an ADSL connection.

The technology behind analogue modems isn't likely to go away any time soon, however: the system still underpins many everyday devices, in particular those in the banking sector with many third-party automated teller machines (ATMs) and chip-and-PIN systems relying on a dial-up connection to bank networks.


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jinq-sea 30th August 2013, 10:07 Quote
Goodbye, old friend pain in the nuts!

Fingers66 30th August 2013, 11:38 Quote
Ahhh, whilst I am not going to tell you my age, I have pleasant fond warm fuzzy painful memories of dial-up...

My earliest memory is of 1200 baud connections, then increasing through 3600, 4800, 9600 and 14.4k then (wow) 36k & 56k. Data download tasks were measured in hours...

BBS's were fun but administering them was a time vampire (I did this) although it did teach me a lot.

Then for me came ISDN then bonded ISDN, obviously I was single and earning too much money - it was like you say, per minute charging.

I can't say I will miss it as I haven't used it in years but, also as you say, it is still embedded in a number of devices so I can't see it disappearing in my lifetime.
Almightyrastus 30th August 2013, 12:01 Quote
I used to see so many people tearing their hair out over 'that awful screeching noise' and 'why does it have to make that sound? can't it be turned off?'. I always found it strangely comforting as I had grown up with that very same analogue data stream sound loading games onto my Spectrum 48k (and later my +2).

I met so many people online chatting away over a 56k connection, good people who I am very happy to still remain friends with. Sure it was expensive and not the fastest thing in the world (at least not until 56k v92 came out...) but it got us online and did the job.

Never going back though ;)
Snips 30th August 2013, 12:19 Quote
Isn't that BT's normal speed? :D

(He says hiding behind 120meg VirginMedia CableFibre)
ARM 30th August 2013, 14:15 Quote
I still have a USB 56K modem in my junk box somewhere .......
azazel1024 30th August 2013, 14:22 Quote
Analogue modems are a comforting sound to me.

I started with a 4800 on a 386 way back when (I can't date myself that badly, I think I was about 6 at the time), it was my Dad's machine. A couple of years later, I got the hand-me-down 8088 from my Brother running DOS 3.0. That thing could run Sim City classic and Zork like nobodies business stored on its 20MB hard drive...I couldn't imagine filling that thing (it was more than 15 5 1/4" disks!), and I never did. My brother inherited the 386 with its modem. My Dad had moved on, a 486sx 25! Along with it was a 14.4k and AOL (we had Prodigy before that).

Fast forward another couple of years and the 386 died. My father in his graciousness bequethed his 486 to my brother and bought himself a 486dx4 100mhz (with external math coprocessor! WOOT!). That thing had a 56k modem and it was like cruising down the information super highway.

Another couple of years and my brother got himself a Pentium, all 133mhz of it! Wow. I got his 486/25 and the next year my Grandfather gave me his (non-Intel) 486/133 (am5x86, AMD chip). Roughly at the same time (right around '96 or maybe early '97, I was in my last year of middle school right before starting high school), my Dad had gotten himself a Pentium II 233mhz and an ISDN jaw dropped at the speed on that thing. Then that summer we moved and ditched the analouge modem, we had cable and a cable modem! I think back in those days it was 1.5Mbps down and 256kbps up or something like that, but oh, my, god was it fast!

Right after I got myself a Pentium (I couldn't afford a Pentium II, and actually if memory serves I bought myself an AMD Pentium clone, a k6 166Mhz IIRC at a computer show near me...ahh, computer shows. Those were the days), my brother had a Pentium II, but we managed to score a pair of 10Mbps ethernet cards for cheap (IE, free, he borrowed them from his college computer lab as he ran the lab, they were ISA, oh man that takes me back) and when my brother came home from college on the summers we'd do Quake LAN parties. A couple of times his friends would schlep their desktops over to our place and we'd play 4-player Quake LAN. EPIC!

So, so long ago (I am 30 now), but at the same time, not so long ago (half my life time, but I am not THAT old yet, it was only 15 years ago roughly for some of that).
Gareth Halfacree 30th August 2013, 14:25 Quote
Originally Posted by azazel1024
My father in his graciousness bequethed his 486 to my brother and bought himself a 486dx4 100mhz (with external math coprocessor! WOOT!).
Can't have been a 486DX4, then: the DX series had internal FPUs; it was only the SX family that lacked an integrated FPU.
Beasteh 30th August 2013, 14:25 Quote
So you mean to say that for dial-up, there is... NO CARRIER ?

debs3759 30th August 2013, 14:26 Quote
My earliest memories of dial-up are 2400 baud modems and BBS or ftp servers (long before the masses ever heard of the internet!). Those were fun days, on the edge of the latest technologies :)
Shirty 30th August 2013, 14:42 Quote
Meh, in my day we used to transmit data by shouting "zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero" through one of these bad boys:
flibblesan 30th August 2013, 14:47 Quote
I miss the sound of a modem dialing up along with the 56k bong noises. Like others have said already it reminds me of the good old days loading games from cassette tape on the old Spectrum. Beeeeeeee-bip. Beeeee-bipipipipip etc
KidMod-Southpaw 30th August 2013, 14:47 Quote
Goodbye old internet memories. You shan't be missed.
Fingers66 30th August 2013, 15:07 Quote
Originally Posted by Shirty
Meh, in my day we used to transmit data by shouting "zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero" through one of these bad boys:

LOL, + rep ;)
Big Elf 30th August 2013, 15:17 Quote
I remember the days of the Acoustic Coupler back in the early 80's
Gareth Halfacree 30th August 2013, 15:19 Quote
Originally Posted by Big Elf
I remember the days of the Acoustic Coupler back in the early 80's
And the joys of building a cushion fort around it in an attempt to block out external noise and get a slightly higher connection speed...

For those who don't know, an acoustic coupler was a type of modem onto which you actually sat the receiver of a telephone. It had a microphone where the earpiece was, and a speaker where the mouthpiece was. Obviously, any external noise would quickly overwhelm the one-size-fits-all-honest rubber shielding you sat the handset into, dropping your connection speed - or even the entire connection.

The reason for this somewhat bizarre design choice is that, believe it or not, once upon a time you couldn't actually connect anything to the telephone network. If you wanted a phone, you rented one from the GPO - later BT - and had it installed by an engineer. You had one choice of phone, and if you decided you didn't want your telephone line any more you had to give it back. The very idea that any third-party manufacturer could build something for connection to GPO's precious network was laughable. Why, chaos would reign!

Thankfully, saner heads prevailed and we got the current system of certification for allowing anybody to connect anything to the telephone lines so long as it has been tested - and when that was introduced, manufacturers could ditch the unreliable acoustic coupler for a direct connection. The devices still remained popular in some circles, however - journalists, in particular, loved 'em, because they could use them in the field on any telephone, even a payphone.
schmidtbag 30th August 2013, 16:40 Quote
Dialup wasn't the worst thing for me. At least in the US, you can get dialup for free as long as you have a land line connected and live close enough to certain locations. The highest speed I recall getting on dialup was a whopping 14KB/s, which was actually pretty good considering. Typically, I got speeds from 7-9KB/s.

Then done day I borrowed a USB wifi adapter from my friend and found out I could mooch off my never-home neighbors who had DSL at the time, and I never looked back at dialup ever since (I pay for my own internet now).
Alecto 30th August 2013, 16:50 Quote
Ugh, my first modem was 2400 bps monstrosity with no hardware error correction. It was about 99% certain that modem would drop the connection due to line noise or mess up Zmodem file transfer just enough in any 30+ minute session ... and at 2400 bps 30 minutes wasn't much when just about any program of interest (such as up-to-date F-prot, McAffee's viruscan, pkzip, ARJ or whatever) came in at 200+ KB per archive (with multiple archive chunks for larger applications).

My next modem, 28800 USR (who misses that company ? I sure do, they used to make great modems before 3COM gobbled them up and turned them into crapware peddler) with al the fancy error correction and compression protocols was such a gigantic improvement, the move to combo Zyxel Elite 2864I (which could do both ISDN and analogue stuff, plus some leased line mumbo jumbo) wasn't all that impressive, bar the absence of analogue connection screeching noises :-)
sakzzz 30th August 2013, 17:50 Quote
Fond memories... Using "getright" to avoid loosing a "large" 5Mb download because the connection would drop... Watching pron load bit by bit covering up the screen.... The connection noise... The verifying "username password box"...List goes on.... :D
Rustynutts 30th August 2013, 17:50 Quote
Niftyrat 30th August 2013, 18:49 Quote
I remember the joys of having a second line installed so I didn't affect my parents phone calls, and then the shock when I got the 1st bill when I had left it connected all day while at work! Don't miss the per minute costs that's for sure. Was fun downloading things using a manager to try and maximise the speed so your song was downloaded in about an hr, how things have changed
erratum1 30th August 2013, 19:11 Quote
Originally Posted by jinq-sea

Ahh the sound of looking at pron in the early hours used to keep disconnecting so this was a pain in the ass.

I got hit by a premium rate dial up virus once it would disconnect then dial a premium rate number I managed to quickly pull the plug.
leexgx 30th August 2013, 21:09 Quote
my work had a AOL Dialup connection , I am quite sure I was not very profitable customer for them

it was shop aol connection we used a proxy server that (was quite good as it saves any thing we downloaded like windows update so they come down at 9MB/s the second time it's downloaded as it was delivered via the proxy not the internet) so the other computers could use it when I got home I would connect aol up that inturn booted off work connection so I could download movies to my 80gb server, that aol connection was on like 24/7 between work and home
Gradius 30th August 2013, 23:59 Quote
I started with 300/300 and 1200/75.

Had my OWN CBBS/BBS back in 1987, accepting those speed above. I did the software myself.
digitaldunc 31st August 2013, 10:57 Quote
I'll just leave this here...

NethLyn 31st August 2013, 12:20 Quote
Didn't even know they still offered it, I'm assuming that Government plan to offer 2Mbits to all (outside Scotland anyway) must be kicking in.
Cheapskate 31st August 2013, 16:49 Quote
I wonder how much they charged for the service near the end.
SexyHyde 31st August 2013, 23:18 Quote
Who cares? I'll admit that this story was good for me though as it reminded me my talktalk contract was up and i could now switch to virgin media. First rule of internet is don't use BT! are they the last to use dial up?
Big Elf 1st September 2013, 00:46 Quote
I think Zen still have dial up as a Broadband backup.
kenco_uk 1st September 2013, 02:07 Quote
1MB in 4 minutes.

All that porn, so little time.
stanonwheels 1st September 2013, 02:27 Quote
Used a 56k screamer to download Sims 1 mods when I was eight. My first real experience of the internet, remember being ridiculously excited at being able to get hundreds of free cars and tables and the like apparently by magic.
l3v1ck 2nd September 2013, 10:21 Quote
I remember being able to tell from the screetching towards the end of the dial up cycle, whether the connection would be successful or not.

I'm glad those days are gone.
SMIFFYDUDE 3rd September 2013, 05:43 Quote
I think I first downloaded Half-Life 2 using dial up
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