Behind the Scenes of a 90’s Internet Start-up
Way back in early 90’s we had a few less than ideal options for computer connectivity in Maine.
There were incompatible dial-up systems such as Compuserve, AOL, and the University of Maine’s mainframe system. These were a toll call in most Maine towns and it was usually cheaper to call the New Hampshire number to use Compuserve or AOL. Alternately, people could transfer messages and files with local bulletin boards using 2400, 9600, or 14.4k modems connected to their phone line. Occasionally these bulletin board systems linked together at scheduled times to exchange messages. I hosted my own bulletin board in 1993 and set it up so that once a day, it connected to the Internet in another state to exchange messages.
In 1993, when I went off to Massachusetts for college, the universities, AOL, Compuserve, and others were just starting to link together via the Internet for email purposes. There wasn’t a World Wide Web functioning at the time. The Internet infrastructure tied these email systems together.
Bringing the World Wide Web to Maine
In 1994, web browsers using HTTP started to gather some momentum as a means of organizing and displaying information on the Internet with links. The Internet then became better known as the World Wide Web; software was offered commercially for regular desktop computers that enable home users to do what was previously only possible with expensive, arcane unix workstations found in computer labs. With standardized email protocols and www based “oracles” like yahoo, the Internet had the means to displace purpose built systems like bulletin boards or Compuserve and develop into something useful for everyone. The trouble was that the big companies only had service in metropolitan areas. If you lived in Portland or Portsmouth you might have a local call. For everyone else the Internet was long distance.
In 1994-95, Fletcher Kittredge and I were among a small group of people in Maine who formed local businesses to give people dial-up Internet access without the costs of a long distance calls. Fletcher’s company, GWI, had recently started, although at the time it was known as Biddeford Internet. Other local business owners were running similar companies known as Maine.com and Agate Internet. I started Midcoast Internet Solutions in the spring of 1995 and a few months later Acadianet, Mint, Internet Maine also got started. Small companies like these brought new Internet services to small local communities in need of services. We survived and thrived in small towns doing serving customers national companies didn’t want seem to care about. People came to us seeking a way get service in their town without long distance. Then, we’d evaluate demand and figure out solutions that made sense for us and for the community.
When GWI and Midcoast Internet started, we were among, perhaps, a half a dozen small businesses providing local Internet service in Maine. There was a flourishing group of new companies after that, then a consolidation, then further thinning as some companies didn’t adopt to new technologies. Pundits familiar with AOL and Compuserve figured we’d all go away quickly as the Internet became a commodity. Those of us who provided good customer service and value to our communities provided far more than a commodity.
How Early Dial-Up Systems Worked
The mechanics of providing Internet in 1995 were similar to running a bulletin board, just with more resources and different software. We had a quantity of modems, each hooked to a phone line, and customers called into this bank of modems to access the Internet servers rather than the proprietary bulletin board servers. We started with six US Robotics 28.8k modems; expensive but reliable technology at the time. This was important because unreliable gear would malfunction and prevent additional connections. To deal with the fast growth and increasing demand, some providers went cheap on the modems and had reliability problems.
Phone lines could also be an issue. Nobody had ordered vast quantities of phone lines before nor expected perfect quality from them. A malfunctioning line would prevent additional customer connections. Early ISP’s needed to know more about troubleshooting phone lines than the phone company itself. Everyone involved in the business at the time knew customers who went from provider to provider, unable to get good reliable service because they had a bad phone line.
When people called in with their modems, their computer accessed a couple of local servers that ISP’s ran. These servers handled the modems, email, DNS (needed for Internet browsing), and authentication. They were usually unix or linux based, running free open-source software. My college courses came in handy for keeping these running. We also needed expensive routers that connected “high-capacity” leased lines from the phone company. These special lines were low latency links between the local service provider and a bigger Internet service provider: a “backbone” or “upstream” connection.
Other business challenges at the time included managing rapid growth and providing good customer service. Fresh out of college and living at home, much of my income was diverted to buying more modems or equipment rather than a big paycheck. However, it is quite rewarding to be using the latest Internet technologies to help your community while getting paid for it. To this day, that remains the allure of working at a local Internet provider rather than other tech jobs.
Tune in next time when we make the transition to digital phone lines and deal with other unique growing pains.