We take the Internet and the companies that provide it (ISPs) for granted today. It almost seems like accessing the Information Superhighway is a right, “endowed by our Creator” and ranking among basic human rights like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” There was a time when someone had to take a chance and bring the world wide web to the public. It was a huge chance to take and risked being shut down at any time.

In 1989 the Internet was used for nothing more than a platform to be used for communication for national defense and for scientists to share research. Things changed that year. In Brookline, Massachusetts a company called The World decided to take a change. The company was founded as Software Tool & Die earlier in 1989. Their first server was a Sun4/280 with two 474MB disks of storage which more than met their needs so they decided to offer an email service as well as usenet online discussion group services to the public.

There were commercial Internet providers already in existence. Telenet is widely believed to be the first commercial ISP launching in 1974. In 1989 there were two of them to be exact, UUNET and PSI. These companies had thousands of dollars worth of equipment and charged thousands of dollars for high-speed connectivity of a whoppng 1.5 Mbps. There was nothing for the average person though but that changed.

Software Tool & Die purchased six modems along with phone lines and connected to other servers in the area. Every so often they dialed up another server and exchanged data with it using this new service that they called The World. Local college campuses were targeted for potential users since those people were more likely to be familiar with email and usenets and they responded. The World was simply hoping to break even and have enough users to cover equipment and power cost but dozens of new clients came on board. The pricing model had to be devised from scratch and set up different hourly charges for different times of the day mirroring phone pricing. If a customer wanted a file from the Internet someone had to request it and it would be downloaded and manually posted to The World.

Things were getting better. UUNET, which was also in the Boston area and founded by a friend of The World’s founder, called and asked if they could locate a rack’s worth of equipment with The World. The cost of housing this equipment would be any extra bandwidth that was available. That was found to be acceptable and in October 1989 The World became the world’s first ISP offering access to the Internet for $20 per month. Domains were purchased and everything seemed to be rosy.

That was until the government stepped in. The Internet was at the time run by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and connection was heavily restricted. A user had to be at an academic or research facility, be working on a research grant from a government agency, be at an accredited university or in the military. The NSF objected to someone selling access to the public, both because of security concerns but also because the Internet was a government service and selling it for commercial purposes was believed to be illegal. Questions were posed, like what would happen if someone sent a threatening email or accessed something that they should not have. After pondering for a bit The World decided that they could not do much besides closing the account.

The NSF did not cut off The World from the Internet but did succeed in blocking about ⅔ of it from their users. Some private individuals were also up in arms, believing that they were selling government property for profit. The World reasoned that their service was no different than using a tour company to see a national park, they were not selling government property, just access to it.

For their customers there was nothing that they could do. The World was the only game in the world (pun intended!) so they could do nothing but wait and see how the situation was resolved. This was hard, their customer base came from all corners of the globe. Many of their customers paid international long distance rates to connect just to read email. After a long wait the NSF called and set up a meeting. Acceptable terms of service would need to be set up and with that the restrictions were lifted.

The rest is history. The World is still in business today, offering low-cost dial-up services to the public as well as email services in the United States and Canada and have around 1,700 users. The company’s website has few frills which is perfect for dial-up users. Other companies, many of whom have been forgotten or bought up, followed and today there are over 2,600 ISPs all over the world.

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