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.

Verizon: Free WiFi Tethering Debate is Moot

This is an update to a posting in which we originally argued “Don’t force Verizon to allow free WiFi tethering”. But now, the whole issue is moot. Let’s explore…

Over the course of the past year, Verizon has used incentives to shift most users away from an unlimited data plan to one that allows unmetered domestic calls and text messages, but charges for data based on a subscription tier. For example, if a subscriber wishes to upgrade or add a subsidized phone onto a Family Share plan, they must relinquish their unlimited data plan and switch to a fixed data plan. Data is sold in buckets with each 2GB level adding about $10/mo to the overall monthly bill. To discourage ad hoc resellers from carving up and selling individual lines within a single, retail account, the cost per 2GB block actually increases for heavily used Family Share plans.

Along with the new billing model is a notable, yet under-publicized fact: Verizon no longer charges for—or restricts—the WiFi hot spot feature of smart phones.   continue below…

Verizon Data Plans

It took us awhile to contemplate, test and vet the new tiered data plans. But in the end, we like this change in both ethos and in practice. We like it a lot, because it recognizes an unwritten fact about carriers: They are first and foremost in the business of selling bandwidth — not features or service. The new scheme benefits almost everyone. Verizon no longer fears that a customer will walk into an auditorium and offer free wireless service to strangers. In fact, carriers no longer have an interest in restricting the pipe or charging for a hardware feature. If a user wishes to let data flow at a high rate or throughout the night, Verizon simply sells a larger data plan to that user.

Incidentally, after a year of using the new plan, we find that typical users are saving money. Moreover, Verizon still allows users to keep their unlimited plan, but without offering handset subsidies when adding phones or new lines.

Don’t Force Verizon to Allow Free Tethering

__________________________________________________________

This post is  contrarian feedback to this CNet article.
Check out the 2013 update: Free Tethering Debate is Moot.
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A Dissenting Opinion — This one should go to the carriers
But first, in classic Wild Duck style, some background…

Smart phones can act as an internet modem, even without a paid plan for off-device data.

Tethering refers to the use of a mobile phone as a modem for either a directly attached PC (using a USB cable or Bluetooth connection) – or even better – by broadcasting a Wi-Fi signal to several nearby devices. They each access the Internet as if they were accessing a router in a home or restaurant.

As of Summer 2011, Verizon charges smart phone users $30 for a use of the Internet on the phone itself (the most popular mid-tier plan).* But they charge an additional $60 for the most popular Hot Spot plan, enabling the Smart Phone to broadcast Wi-Fi Internet connectivity to nearby devices. Verizon expressly forbids subscribers to use technical tricks to obtain this added functionality without paying for added feature, even if the user stays within their monthly data allowance and even though the phone has the native ability to do so.

Hackers have methods to use PCs and gaming devices through the mobile phone network, while making it appear that the data is used on phone itself. Most of these tricks require rooting the phone, a complex process that may “brick” the phone or void the warranty. (At least one Android tethering app doesn’t require rooting the phone).

A new complaint to the FCC pushes Verizon to allow free 4G tethering without added cost for the use of other devices on the carrier’s networks. The plaintiffs argue that they are paying for a fixed data allowance and that the phone they purchased from the carrier clearly includes the tethering feature. In theory, they are asking “Why should Verizon care on which device we access the Internet. Either way, we are paying for the connectivity and the overall amount of data.”

Carriers charge more for off-phone data use (a PC, camera or gaming device).

But Verizon does care! They realize that a single, palm-size device with a 4 inch screen pulls less data through overloaded towers than 5 or 10 PCs, digital cameras and even home theaters – all using the Internet at once. (Yes! Using the wireless carrier as a backhaul, a single smart phone acting as a WiFi router can provide internet connectivity for an entire home! My Droid Charge can service 10 wi-fi devices!)
Will plaintiffs succeed in a class action against Verizon? Can users force the carrier to allow tethering without a cost premium? If they do, I think that we all lose…

I can hardly be called an advocate for the carrier. Jonathan Zdziarski once led a class action against Verizon to stop them from crippling Bluetooth on the Motorola v710 phone. I was a plaintiff in that suit. We won on the basis that the phone and the packaging displayed a Bluetooth logo which conveys a certain meaning. I also played a role in persuading carriers to unlock the power of user equipment, to allow a native handset GUI, and – eventually – to allow rooting, at least with indifference.

I am a heavy data user. Although I love what Android has done to my smart phone, I prefer to use a PC with a PC OS, instead of the tiny screen on my phone. And as an acknowledged hypocrite, I will admit to occasionally using a tethering application, so that I can get Internet access on the go.

But, I am lobbying for the carriers on this one. It ain’t easy to stick a needle in my own wallet, but let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Let’s look at this from Verizon’s point of view…

Verizon smart phones are bundled with unlimited data for use on the phone itself (you could add a Bluetooth keyboard and even an HDMI monitor, but not, according to Verizon, serve up Wi-Fi to a other gadgets. That option is available for an additional fee of $60/month.

Given the wording of the license covenant, it is still possible that a judge may side with Verizon. Although the phone is designed to support tethering and Wi-Fi, it could easily be argued that these were incorporated to facilitate carrier options. After all, a tethering “app” is not an application as envisioned by the law. It isn’t a game, an email client, or a restaurant finder. It is a hack — a work around!

But let’s say that the judge interprets the restriction literally and awards the claim to the plaintiffs (presumably to all Verizon customers). If I were the carrier, this could only result in one action. Good for some phone users, but bad for most: I would change the pricing model. No longer could I offer unlimited data for phone users, because each phone can act as a mini ISP and router. It could effectively pump an entire building and all the splitters and switches within. It could service an auditorium or a trade show.

You get the point? Carriers would bill all smart phones for data by the gulp instead of the pipe. No law can prevent this. If you ship 1 FedEx package a month, you pay ‘X’. If you ship 30 packages, you pay more. In effect, we return to metered use. If you use 2GB, you get price A. If you use 8GB, price B, and more than 10G, price C. To those who use just the phone, this fight makes you the loser. You will occasionally hit the limit.

I can think of only one other alternative. Perhaps, Verizon will simply raise the price for all you can eat. But the judge may allow a discount or rebate to users who never tether their phones. This scheme could effectively bring back unlimited use in the palm of your hand, while forcing those of us who tether to pay our dues. As we should!

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