A Brief History of Public Internet Access

Reader, Tamia Boyden asks this question:

In the 90s, how could we access the internet without WiFi?

In the process of responding to a reader, we have compiled a short history of public and residential Internet access. Whether you lived through this fascinating period of social and technical upheaval or simply want to explore the roots of a booming social phenomenon, I hope that you find the timeline and evolution as interesting as I do.

Before answering Tamia’s question, let’s review a snapshot of the highlights. This short bullet-list focuses on technical milestones, but the history below, explains the context, social phenomenon and implications.

Short Version:

• 1965 Hypertext link described
• 1970s TCP/IP packet protocol
• 1983 TCP adopted by Arpanet
• 1989~91 Http protocol
• 1991 Public access begins
• 1995 Netscape Mozilla unveiled.
World’s first web browser

Question: In the 1990s, how could we access the internet without WiFi?

We didn’t need WiFI in the 1990s and we don’t need it now. In both era’s, you can simply attach your PC to the internet with a network cable. If your PC does not have an Ethernet port, you can add a miniature USB-Ethernet adapter. They are inexpensive.

Likewise, before internet service was available to almost every home and business, you could access the internet via telephone modem, or by visiting a library, internet cafe or office that had a leased line for fast access.*

In each case, adoption goes hand in hand with infrastructure build-out, cost reduction and (in the case of WiFi), the desire to move about the home or community more freely.

* Ellery’s brief history of Public Internet Access

1965: The concept of “hypertext” and clickable “links”. But demonstrations were limited to a single computer or a local network. The first mouse was patented in 1967. But for the next 15 years, few people used a mouse or pointing device.

1970s: The Internet and its predecessor, the Arpanet, was a constellation of networked terminal access tools that connected universities and research labs. Finding material and accessing it required command line jargon that limited its use. You could access the web and most standards were in place—but there was no universal browser that incorporated hypertext links.

1983: Apple introduces the Lisa (predecessor to the Macintosh). It included a mouse, which most people had never used before. Not to be outdone, Microsoft offered an aftermarket Mouse for $195 which came bundled with Word and Notepad.

1991: The public gained access in 1991 after Tim Berners-Lee, posted a summary of the project and the http standard that he pioneered.

1995: Netscape introduces Mozilla (later renamed Netscape browser). It kicked off a gradual migration of data from FTP and Usenet servers to web pages (http protocol) and an explosion in services and subscribers.

Final Impediments to Adoption: Complexity & Connection infrastructure

In-home use still required special equipment (a telephone modem) and applications had to be installed from a CD or multiple floppy discs. These apps modified the operating system by adding a TCP stack and a Windows Socket API. Prior to these things being bundled into new PCs, the process was a daunting. And so, for the next 10 years, many people accessed the internet from Internet cafes, schools or libraries.

1999: The WiFi standard was introduced in 1997. But it had technical limitations that limited its appeal. In 1997, 802.11b, the first widely used and supported WiFi standard, brought the freedom of movement into homes. This occurred at around the same time that many people were moving from a desktop or tower computer to a laptop.

WiFi-b and later g and n helped to propel convenient Internet access from anywhere within a home. Over the next decade, consumers came to expect an available WiFi signal in offices, schools, restaurants, hotels and airports.

2003: Rise of Social Media

Myspace wasn’t the first social media platform. Friendster beat it out by almost a year. But Myspace was the first to go viral and nationwide among many demographics. Along with Facebook—which eclipsed Myspace in subscriber growth—social media platforms turned many infrequent users into constantly-connected consumers.

  • Friendster March 2002
  • MySpace August 2003
  • Facebook February 2004
  • Twitter March 2006

2007: Apple and AT&T introduced the iPhone in the summer. Prior to 2007, flip phones offered web access via a crude browser built into Symbian or Palm, the OS used by Nokia, Motorola Palm Pilot and others. But the iPhone kicked off the Smart Phone, a new category of must have consumer gadgets. It propelled ubiquitous, mobile internet access.

1995 ~ 2020

Gradually, the Internet become a mass market phenomenon. But slow connection speeds and the need to suspend telephone calls limited its use. Between 1978 and 1996, telephone modems gradually improved technology from 300 bps to 56,000 Baud (access at ~25 kbps).

After 1996, consumers gradually switched away from using their telephone lines to a dedicated internet service. Homes connect to an ISP (Internet Service Provider) via either existing phone wire (ISDN), TV cables, Fiberoptic or Wireless-to-home.

Today (2019), it is not uncommon to have residential internet access via a Gigabit fiberoptic connection.

— Image credit:  1) Malone Media Group   2) Chris Galloway

Should you toss out that dial-up modem?

Today, a reader asked me: “Is there any justification for keeping an external modem?

Of course, the word modem applies to current technologies, such as cable modems and ONT (the modem that connects a home or office to FIOS). But, I am pretty sure that this reader is asking about a POTS dial-up modem (POTS = Plain Old Telephone Service).*

Answer: It is safe to toss out this antique, save it for a museum, or let your 9 year old bring it to Show-&-Tell:

“My daddy used a Moh-dum. It’s how pre-historic humans got online in the Stone Age!! They called it America Online”.

Sometimes, a common tool passes into the realm of anachronism while it still sits in your tool box on your workbench. My daughter is already 18. Yet, she has never wound a watch, dialed a telephone (with a spring-loaded reciprocating dial), or tuned in a car radio. If it weren’t for an eclectic interest in the movie iRobot (Will Smith orders a pair of classic shoes from his grandfather’s era), I doubt that she would have ever experienced tying shoe laces.

But wait! Could a dial-up modem be useful when your lose Internet service—for example, during a storm or other service blackout? Not really. Who ya gonna call?!

If you have an urgent need to get online while your primary service is interrupted, you can create cell phone hotspot or ask a neighbor for temporary access to his WiFi signal. Holding onto your dial-up model is as useful as holding onto two tin cans connected by string. In most countries, you would have a hard time finding a modem that could answer your call at the other end!

If you are older than 35, then here is a friendly sound from your past (click YouTube image below). It is the sound of a dial-up modem connecting to a bulletin board or an internet gateway. If you used this type of modem, then you temporarily without phone service (unless you had an extra line of phone service). You even had to disable call waiting, so that the data connection was not interrupted.

* Incidentally, POTS is, itself, an extinct technology. Even if you have a twisted pair of copper wires entering your home and telephone jacks with red & green wires coming up from the cellar, it is very unlikely that this wire pair goes far beyond the phone pole outside your house. Your analog phone signal was converted from digital data far upstream and multiplexed with many of your neighbors into a high-speed data stream or onto a broadband carrier signal for distribution within your neighborhood and for long distance.

Instead of circuit switching your voice with the person you are talking to, telcos often use intranets and even the public internet, just like individual users with a VoIP SIP.

Modem Trivia

  • Dennis Hayes invented the PC modem. Hayes introduced a 300 bit per second modem in 1977 for $280. By the time that modems were being replaced by ASDL and direct connect cable services, the fastest 56,000 bps modems were often available for free after store rebate.
  • In the mid 1980s, new consumer modems bumped up data speed from 1200 bps to 2400 bps. Around that time, Hayes aired the first TV commercial for a computer component—rather than the computer itself (the Hayes modem). It was years before a 1991 TV commercial that promoted the brand and logo of an internal part (“Intel Inside”), rather than the product being advertised. Nutrasweet attempted the same ingredient branding at around the same time. Still later, in 1993, Intel introduced the Pentium CPU.