A Brief History of Public Internet Access

Reader, Tamia Boyden asks this question:

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

This post began as an answer to subscriber question at Quora.com. In the process of answering, I 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.

I have included my answer to Tamia’s question, below. But first, let’s get a quick snapshot of the highlights. The 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: 1st browser

Scroll below Q&A for context and commentary* —


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

Answer:

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

Is there an upper limit to future WiFi speed?

As with many recent posts, this was originally a reply to a member of Quora. I am a frequent columnist at this popular Q&A forum.

Is there a theoretical speed limit to
WiFi devices over the next 10 years?

Because of four recent practices,* it is difficult to predict an upper limit for future overall throughput:

  1. Channel bonding
  2. Beam steering (MIMO shaping and directing the antenna pattern)
  3. Mesh Networking (i.e. subdividing a service area into micro-cells). Residential examples: Google WiFi, Netgear Orbi or TP-Link Deco
  4. Ultra wideband or Ultra-high frequency: In 2017, both Netgear and Asus introduced routers with 802.11ad WiFi (‘WiFi AD’). Although it still not widely adopted, it adds a 60 GHz radio to the existing 2.4 and 5 GHz radios, supporting 7 Gbps network speed).

Note that none of these techniques demands a high output power per channel. They all use ‘tricks’ to achieve higher speeds. But the tricks are scaleable. There really is no upper limit to any of these techniques.

Mesh networks don’t increase overall bandwidth, but by reducing the signal power and service area (and having many more access points), there is more bandwidth available for each device.

The 60 GHz used by WiFi AD is so high, that it cannot pass through walls in a typical home—just within a room. On the other hand ultra-wideband transmission has been demonstrated and recently blessed by the FCC, but it is not yet a WiFi standard. With this method, it will be possible to send insanely high-speed, low power signals through walls to cover small areas.

How fast are ultra-wideband radios? How about terabytes per second, depending on distance? It’s difficult to imagine future applications that may need that speed. It dwarfs the real world data input capacity of our senses. Perhaps, someday, you will need to transfer the entire literature of all known civilizations into your brain under under 2 milliseconds. I suppose that it would be good for that purpose.


* I called these technologies “recent developments”. But actually, three of four practices have a long history in military, commercial and industrial applications.

a) Beam steering

Focusing an antenna pattern has been around for more than 75 years. Yagi TV antennas (popular in 1960s and 70s) are highly directional. Some TV broadcast towers are situated near the edge of a service area. They split their broadcast signal, through a phase delay and deliver the waveforms to an array of antenna. This allows them to steer the signal without any mechanical movement. Directional lasers or infrared beams are often used for communications.

b) Channel bonding (or reverse multiplexing)

I had an exceptional router in the 1990s that could combine backhaul services (not just switch from one to the other in case of a drop out). It boosted speed by distributing internet packets over three separate networks):2 separate cable services and an early cell phone modem.

c) Mesh/Cellular coverage

The ‘full-blown’ implementation was developed by Motorola in the 1980s to accommodate growth in the mobile telephone market. I am not aware of an earlier implementations that included graceful, real-time hand-off of a device in motion. Of course, hotels and large convention centers have used mesh networking for more than a decade.