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Video Barry Shein Founded the First Dialup ISP (Video) 116

Back in the dawn of prehistory, only universities, government agencies, and a few big corporations could get on the Internet. The rest of us either had computers connected to nothing (except maybe an electric outlet), Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL or another service or possibly to an online bulletin board service (BBS). And then, one day in 1989, Barry Shein hooked a server and some modems to an Internet node he managed for a corporate/academic wholesale Internet provider -- and started selling dialup accounts for $20 per month to individuals, small companies, and just about anyone else who came along. Barry called his ISP The World, which is still out there with a retro home page ("Page last modified April 27, 2006"), still selling shell accounts. We may run a second interview with Barry next week, so please stay tuned. (Alternate Video Link)

Robin Miller: Once upon a time there were no ISPs; if you wanted to be on the internet, you needed to be a government agency or a university or something along those lines. And then along came Barry, yes I know it sounds like a bad country western song, along came John, but here he is, and he came up with the first commercial ISP, so please, how sir did this happen?

Barry: Well, in 1989, in the summer, late summer, I got the idea to start offering email and similar accounts to people on a server we had, but we weren’t on the internet, we were on something called UUCP, which just used dial-up, just used modem-to-modem between servers and then one day the CEO of UUNET, who was a good friend of mine, called and he said, would you be willing to host me? Now they were selling wholesale high-speed internet connections to corporations. He said would you be willing to host a rack of equipments in your offices so I could service my customers in Boston. He was down near Washington DC, this company and growing. And I said, of course. And, he said, what do you want in return? And I said, all the bits I can eat. And he said what does that mean? And I said, you know, I want to put these customers I have directly on the internet. He said, sure, no problem, you got a T1, which back then was pretty hot actually, like half megabits, I know it sounds not much today but it was pretty good.

So we did and so we continued offering accounts and of course we added that, now on the internet, you can do internety things, whatever that meant in 1989; there was no web yet, there was no browsers, but you know, people exchanged email, we had a shell server, they could use various email programs, FTPs, they could Telnet. We had quite a few consultants for example who simply needed to be able to make a local call in Boston hook up to us and Telnet saying through a machine in California. There was no SSA chip. So that was a boon to them. They found us quickly. So that was it and so for the first time we were putting the general public on the internet for around $20 a month. I'd already put several companies on the internet and I had been involved with the internet quite a few years. I put Boston University on the internet.

I was at Boston University, worked in the computing center. I was a graduate student. So I was pretty well known already, which helped, by the powers that be. You know the internet governors as it were in 1989.... It was a small club, the internet. We knew each other. We knew each other by name. So people were like, what are you doing? I said, I am letting people dial in through the internet and they are like, you can’t do that and I said, I am charging them money and they were like, I think that’s illegal. I think what you’re doing is illegal. You know, I would get these angry mails telling me I couldn’t do this. They weren’t quite sure why and then NSF that kind of sort of indicated that, that’s kind of interesting. We know you. Could you do this? Why don’t we call this an experiment? An NSF experiment? Then everybody would be okay with it legally. And I said sure, call it whatever you like, you know, but I got customers, you know I’m having a 1,000 customers, whatever, dialing into the internet already while we were talking about this. Then I didn’t hear much else from them. I mean that sort of calmed things down when NSF, National Science Foundation spoke. They were running most of the academic or the entire academic and research network, all those, like BARnet and you know, all of the kind of, like SURFnet, and they were in charge. Steve Wolf was in charge other than MILNET for European networks which of course were charging themselves. There were not many of them. They were their own entity and they interconnected with the American Networks.

Robin Miller: You know interestingly, wait a minute, so you are saying you started out with a 1,000 paying customers, just got them on to the internet?

Barry: Yes, on that order, few hundred, I don’t know what it was, I am saying that by the time we were negotiating, whether this was even legal I already had about 1000 customers probably.

Robin Miller: And that’s quite a considerable number, considering what the Internet wasn’t back then.

Barry: Yeah. Well, we are out of time and we were trying to make money. I didn’t have much capital, but I would literally print up flyers, 8.5x11 cheap paper flyers, go over to universities and hand them out. That was in college or Boston University, again I was just standing in front and hand it to anybody walking by like it was a political thing. Something we mined quite actively was when we later made a nice brochure, a little trifled brochure because we realized that when people were laid off, it had gotten pretty bad. When people were laid off at companies like DEC where they had internet access, they had no other way to get internet access. Of course, as they were laid off, their access was shut down. You never give away open employee access to your network.

Robin Miller: No.

Barry: So, we then went to HR of these companies that were doing lay-offs. We sent brochures saying, well here is something you can hand to a customer on the exit and we’re happy to accommodate them. And of course people who have used the Internet, used the internet to find new jobs. So it was worth something for them. We had customer all over the world, remember in total about January and so for months, till almost spring, I had a monopoly on the internet, on the public internet.

Robin Miller: Doug Humphrey

Barry: It was nowhere else. I’d get customers from what?

Robin Miller: Doug Humphrey, right behind you, down in Maryland. You remember him?

Barry: Who?

Robin Miller: Doug Humphrey.

Barry: Yeah, I speak with him all the time.

Robin Miller: He wasn’t that far behind you, I know because my friend Danny Setzer called me, he ran a cab company in Baltimore. I worked there some and he was saying, we can get internet accounts now, we can get internet accounts, you call this guy Doug and you give him $19 a month and you have the internet. You have a shell account and you have email to everybody and you can even see the website. And I said, what’s a website and he was talking about the Stanford Linear Accelerator project website and Paul who ran that and who I have since met, and who has since moved to St. Petersburg, Florida after he retired. But yeah, I jumped on it, if I had gotten one of your flyers, I would have been, yes, sign me up. So it worked.

Barry: Yeah. It was exciting and of course, as you know, very few people knew what it was. So it was kind of a hard sell. I mean you got your first several hundred or thousand, and then it really slowed down, and we told people, well we told people that hadn’t already been on the internet. Their reaction usually was, well what would I do with it? _____10:24 or AOL, which were not on the Internet but you know they had fancy interfaces and all. Yeah, they already had an internal structure with discussion groups and that sort of thing. And I said, I don’t know, this is more a free for all, you know we don’t control it, we just give you access to it. And they were like well, may be, okay. You really got that like, they hadn’t heard of the internet and they thought it was like something new. Iit would be like selling ham radio licenses.

I was first on the internet at around 1977, maybe 1978. I had almost continuous internet access through that whole early era. To me it was... I almost always found a way to set up a modem at home, set up a terminal and a modem. Back in the old day, I had dumb terminals at home. Now we got a Z19 or I had a Beehive terminal, something somebody sold me used, it was a big clump, I think I still have it in the next room. It had so little memory that you had to account for highlighted characters because you could have 80 characters on a line but if someone highlighted, that’s twice as much – you could only have 40 highlighted characters. I mean, this was an era of bit counting.

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Barry Shein Founded the First Dialup ISP (Video)

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