Dial up and Accessibility

It’s funny how quickly we sometimes forget.

When cable first became available in my neighbourhood, most people connected to the internet via dial-up. Since my work involves providing advice about the usability and accessibility of websites, I made a conscious decision at the time to go with the masses and remain on dial-up. Within a couple of years however, the frustration caused by ever slower sites and the demands of a teenager caused me to re-consider and I went cable.

As I am sure nearly all readers of this would agree, Mbps sure beats the hell out of kbps. I loved the move to cable; video, audio, greater interactivity – the whole shebang.

And then I lost my cable connection, courtesy of a Telstra Shamble, and it was 17 painful days before it was restored.

Telstra gave me a dial-up connection while they sorted out the problem: Back with a thud to the world of (theoretical) 56kbps. I am a bit of a news junky and the Sydney Morning Herald is one of the sites I usually visit several times a day. A habit I very quickly abandoned with dial-up as it was just not possible to get the homepage to fully load at the slower connection speed without turning off images and disabling plug-ins (aka Flash).

With a rush of masochistic curiosity I decided to test the dial-up connection times of some sites, including the following:

  • Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) – http://www.smh.com.au/
  • ABC – NEWS (ABC) – http://www.abc.net.au/news/

Commonwealth Departments

  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) – http://www.deewr.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx
  • Family, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) – http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/Pages/default.aspx
  • Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) – http://www.daff.gov.au/

NSW Departments

  • Department of Community Services (DOCS) – http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/welcome_to_docs_website.html
  • Department of Education and Training (DET) – https://www.det.nsw.edu.au/

While still trapped in the dial-up world, I accessed the Home page of each entity by entering the web address in the browser (Firefox). I also recorded the time it took to access one internal page from a link on the Home page of each site. After my cable connection was restored, I tested the same sites again in the same way. I cleared the browser cache before each round of testing.

Comparison of page load times (mins:secs)

Site Dial up load time Cable load time
SMH ? 0:05
ABC-News(Home) 2:28 0:02
ABC story page 0:18 0:01
DEEWR (Home) 1:49 0:10
DEEWR (Internal) 1:36 0:12
FaHCSIA (Home) 0:56 0:03
FaHCSIA (Internal) 0:18 0:02
DAFF (Home) 0:18 0:02
DAFF (Internal) 0:21 0:04
DOCS (Home) 1:48 0:11
DOCS (Internal) 0:18 0:03
DET (Home) 1:03 0:04
DET (Internal) 0:34 0:01

NB: ? = Two attempts were made to access the SMH site using dial-up. Each attempt was abandoned after 3:00 minutes because the page had not fully loaded.

On average, it took more than 12 times longer for a test page to load with dial-up when compared to cable. My initial reaction to these results was one of surprise, but when I think about the difference in load times logically of course it all makes sense. Over the years of enjoying the fruits of cable, I guess I had just not really noticed the gradual increase in the size of pages: A bit like the fable of the frog in boiling water.

The Sydney Morning Herald is a commercial enterprise and probably needs to have lots of images, advertisements and zappy content. They might consider the risk of frustrating and possibly alienating people who still use dial-up an acceptable cost, and not even consider it an accessibility issue since there are many other sources of news. But would it be acceptable for the providers of government services to adopt the same attitude?

In part, the answer to this question depends on how many people in Australia still use dial-up, for if no one did, slow dial-up connection would not be a problem. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the last quarter of 2008, 1.3 million (16%) of subscribers were using dial-up, and nearly all of these were householders (i.e. not business or government). It is also worth noting, that in January 2008 the Australian Communications and Media Authority reported, “For the farm sector, there is a continuing reliance on dial-up internet connections: 53 per cent of respondents with an internet connection reported using dial-up.”

The web is increasingly the medium of choice for delivering government services and information. For the 1.3 million Australians who rely on dial-up to access the web, the size of some web pages could well be an accessibility issue.

Economics and geography are probably two main reasons why internet users are unable to enjoy the benefits of high speed internet connection. And, people with disabilities, as well as many living in rural Australia, are among those in our community with the least disposable income.

While the load times for all the test pages were very acceptable when accessed with cable, I don’t think the same can be said when dial-up is used. Should someone seeking information about education or employment, who is unable to afford cable, have to wait 1 minute and 49 seconds to view the Homepage of the relevant Commonwealth Department? Or, should a family in rural NSW have to wait about the same length of time to access the NSW Department of Community Services?

When it comes to the design of websites, I don’t want to see a return to the dial-up days with written and unwritten rules requiring web pages to be less than 50 or 100k. However, I do think it is worth thinking about the intended users of a site, and recognise that a large, bloated homepage can present a real access barrier for at least some people.

Although the 17 days of dial-up were painful, the experience has been for me a useful reminder that not everyone has the luxury of cable connection.

9 Comments

  1. Excellent reminder. It is very easy to forget that some people have dial-up, or small res monitors, or not the latest and greatest of things. We rush to move ahead at the risk of leaving more and more people behind, which is contrary to the goals of accessibility.

    Mike

  2. Another thing to remember is that many companies and government entities are spending a lot of money to produce mobile versions of their sites, which are designed for speeds even slower than dial-up, but they are not making any attempt to offer the same level of access to dialup users. I think it is possible to read a user’s connection speed, or to have browsers report the connection speed, as a way to make websites dialup-friendly again.

  3. Most web designers don’t take into consideration the choke factor of most ISPs’ “broadband” during peak times. I personally use a 256kbs connection for that very reason.

    I’m interested in seeing some results of these pages with the browser settings turned down, which, is what savvy low speed surfers do.

  4. Even with cable/dsl, some sites take way too long to load because they have so many third party addons and scripting errors, not to mention the bad background coding.

  5. From BBC
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8248056.stm
    Broadband promised to unite the world with super-fast data delivery – but in South Africa it seems the web is still no faster than a humble pigeon.

    A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country’s biggest web firm, Telkom.

    Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles – in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.

    Telkom said it was not responsible for the firm’s slow internet speeds.

    The idea for the race came when a member of staff at Unlimited IT complained about the speed of data transmission on ADSL.

    He said it would be faster by carrier pigeon.

  6. Thanks for the great pigeon story Doug.

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