BT pulls the plug on 56K dial-up
August 30, 2013 | 08:47
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.