Nostalgia Blues

San Jose Mercury News columnist Troy Wolverton engaged in a bit of nostalgia in Friday’s paper. He pines for the Golden Age of dial-up Internet access, when Internet users had a plethora of choices:

A decade ago, when dial-up Internet access was the norm, you could choose from dozens of providers. With so many rivals, you could find Internet access at a reasonable price all by itself, without having to buy a bundle of other services with it.

There was competition because regulators forced the local phone giants to allow such services on their networks. But regulators backed away from open-access rules as the broadband era got under way. While local phone and cable companies could permit other companies to use their networks to offer competing services, regulators didn’t require them to do so and cable providers typically didn’t.

Wolverton’s chief complaint is that the DSL service he buys from Earthlink is slow and unreliable. He acknowledges that he could get cheaper service from AT&T and faster service from Comcast, but doesn’t choose to switch because he doesn’t want to “pay through the nose.”

The trouble with nostalgia is that the past never really was as rosy as we tend remember it, and the present is rarely as bad as it appears through the lens of imagination. Let’s consider the facts.

Back in the dial-up days, there were no more than three first-class ISPs in the Bay Area: Best Internet, Netcom, and Rahul. They charged $25-30/month, over the $15-20 we also paid for a phone line dedicated to Internet access; we didn’t want our friends to get a busy signal when we were on-line. So we paid roughly $45/month to access the Internet at 40 Kb/s download and 14 Kb/s or so upstream.

Now that the nirvana of dial-up competition (read: several companies selling Twinkies and nobody selling steak) has ended, what can we get for $45/month? One choice in the Bay Area is Comcast, who will gladly provide you with a 15 Mb/s service for a bit less than $45 ($42.95 after the promotion ends,) or a 20 Mb/s service for a bit more, $52.95. If this is “paying through the nose,” then what were we doing when we paid the same prices for 400 times less performance back in the Golden Age? And if you don’t want or need this much speed, you can get reasonable DSL-class service from a number of ISPs that’s 40 times faster and roughly half the price of dial-up.

Wolverton’s column is making the rounds of the Internet mailing lists and blogs where broadband service is discussed, to mixed reviews. Selective memory fails to provide a sound basis for broadband policy, and that’s really all that Wolverton provides.

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2 thoughts on “Nostalgia Blues”

  1. I’d like to see him buy “unbundled” dialup service. I used to pay $30 a month for just dial-up service and that didn’t include the cost of telephone service which was WAY higher than it is today. With the price of the phone service, I was paying $60/month.

    Today, I pay $35/month for Internet-only 3 Mbps DSL which is 100x faster than 30 kbps (nobody ever got more than 30 on a routine basis) dial-up service. Yeah, the “good old days”.

    Funny thing is that “the good old days” were never all that good. People like to say “they don’t build them like they used to” in reference to cars and boast about how their old car would barely get bent with a 20 MPH collision. Trouble is that they don’t consider what happens when your head rams into that metal dashboard at 20 MPH or that you’d probably die in a 40 MPH crash even if you had a shoulder harness seatbelt due to the lack of a crumple zone.

  2. When I was a boy all our networks
    Were for hauling in fish from the sea–
    Our bawd rate was eight bits an hour (and she was worth it!),
    And our IP address was just 3.

    And you kids who complain that the World Wide Web
    Is too slow oughtta cut out your bitchin’,
    ‘Cuz when I was a boy every packet
    Was delivered by carrier pigeon….

    –Frank Hayes (More at the link above)

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