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The Last Days of the Tiny ISP

In 1996 I got hired by a small, fledgling ISP. My boss was a 20 year old former pizza delivery guy. I was taking graphic design courses at the community college and he was looking for a graphic designer that was willing to learn HTML, so they could offer web design.

Man, I struggled. It was all so new, and the how-to resources were scarce. It was always, look at other cool sites, and do a “view source” to see how to make it work. I also had a phone book sized HTML handbook, although looking back, why was that book so big? Because HTML isn’t really that complicated.

The web site business was slow to take off, but the ISP side of it was going gangbusters, so I helped out by doing tech support and customer service. It was fun – people from the neighborhood would stop by and pick up their CD and we’d chat. Then if they called later for tech support, we could put a face to a name.  It was a very small company (less than 10 employees), and that really provided a sense of camaraderie and teamwork. Everyone wanted to make it work.

Our competition was AOL and Compuserve, and we offered a decent alternative, with a great customer experience. My boss had me design this interface with a bunch of graphical buttons (drop shadows FTW!) so people would have an idea of what you could do with the Internet once you got connected. At the time, even the big ISPs only provided a telnet interface, so most non-tech people would get online and say, “Okay, now what?” I think my little graphical interface was helpful in that respect. Oh how I wish I still had a copy of it. I’m sure it was lost in a PC that crashed a long time ago. No cloud back then. Not even thumb drives.

All the action happened over modems and phone lines. Unfortunately, within a year, the phone company started raising rates to the point that eventually led to the ISP’s downfall. I’m sure the phone companies started realizing, “Hey, we own these lines. Now all we have to do figure out how to set up some servers and start providing internet access ourselves. Screw these little guys.” And that was how Big Internet was born.

Now we have the TWC Comcast merger looming over our heads. Dave Winer is urging people to speak up and oppose it, and I completely agree with his sentiment; I’m just not sure what we can do to stop it. Now it’s all up to the FCC and Department of Justice, and what hope should we have when the current Chairmen of the FCC is a former cable industry lobbyist?  Comcast execs have already been cozying up to DOJ officials, inviting them to attend opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics. What role does public sentiment play in any of this? Sadly, not much.

So I guess I’m just a sentimental fool, looking back. There used to more of a sense of possibility in the 90’s. You had all these little start-ups, doing interesting stuff, figuring out different ways to do things. Now all the good ideas get swallowed up by the sausage factories of Big DATA Big SILOS Big CABLE Big INTERNET. But I suppose as long as it’s still possible to create and publish your own content, or make your own apps, there is still a seed of hope. When the big ISPs try to take that away from us, I’ll come out waving my pitchfork.