A brief history of internet service providers

Those who were of computing age in the ’80s and ’90s probably remember the late-night dial-up sessions. You paired parachute pants with a stylish denim jacket. Michael Jackson sang through the boom box to your left. And your computer? It looked like a spaceship fell into a mini fridge. It was the late ’80s, and early technological pioneers were puzzling over the amazing new invention known as “the internet.”

Most folks weren’t able to get online at home until the 1990s, when internet service providers (or ISPs) burst onto the scene. ISPs revolutionized communication and brought technology to the masses through rebellion, competition, and innovation.

First, the rebellion 

For years, the National Science Foundation banned commercial ISPs, permitting only government agencies and universities to use the internet. In 1989, that changed. “The World” materialized as the first commercial ISP, when a group of tech-savvy warriors pushed up their glasses and said “no more.”

Sure, back then it was still staggeringly slow dial-up, but The World did exceptionally well in its first two years. Its radical newness generated a wide consumer base. By 1991, the NSF threw in the towel and lifted the ban. A new era of technology was born.

The commercial ISP business exploded following the The World’s success. Early providers included CompuServe, The Source, and the overwhelmingly popular America Online — AOL. Consumers lived for the blazing speed of a dial-up connection at 2,400 bits per second. (That’s just .0024 Mbps!)

At such a racing snail’s pace, internet users of the ’90s were limited online. Even so, rudimentary video games like Space Invaders and Pac-Man swept the nation alongside text-based webpages and simple, boxy graphics. Anonymous chatrooms became enormously popular as consumers discovered the joy of different-colored fonts and inspired usernames. If that seems primitive by today’s standards, it was — but no one really knew what the internet would eventually be capable of.

Of course, consumers began to crave internet service at faster speeds, and ISPs did their best to keep up.

DSL comes onto the scene  

A “digital subscriber line” — or DSL — was the first form of faster internet services known as broadband. DSL carried the internet signal through existing phone lines at a much faster speed than dial-up. DSL was typically better for urban subscribers, because the closer they were to a city center, the faster their internet was. In some ways, that hasn’t changed much.

The higher speeds of DSL spurred even more technological revolution in broadband services. Fierce competition arose between ISPs who sought to provide customers with the next best thing. Within the next 20 years, commercial ISPs offered cable internet and fiber optic lines of communication.

Cable residential broadband was introduced in 1996. This service utilized cable TV infrastructure to transmit data at faster speeds than DSL. Cable provided a more direct connection to internet for those who lived in more heavily populated areas.

Fiber optic lines followed quickly on the heels of cable, and achieved an even speedier rate of data transfer. These lines were made of flexible strands of glass, allowing data to move at the speed of light, but at a much higher cost.

However, since DSL, cable, and fiber optic lines all required expensive infrastructure buildout, these services were typically limited to urban and suburban areas with high concentrations of people. It didn’t make much sense for terrestrial ISPs to pay to run a cable all the way outside of town to provide internet for just a few homes. That meant that people in rural areas were being left behind in this technological revolution, with slow dial-up or, in some places, no internet at all.

How could you service these people without charging a fortune? 

The answer: satellite

Perhaps the greatest innovation in universal internet service was the invention of satellite internet. Satellite internet is not limited to cables, wires, or densely populated areas. Instead, a satellite sends and receives internet signals from space directly to your home — no matter where you live. Many rural families were finally able to connect to the internet using this technology.

WildBlue, the precursor to Exede, was one of the first to offer this kind of service beginning in 2005. Speed and data improved tremendously with the launch of a new satellite and the Exede service in 2012. In 2017, Viasat will launch a new satellite capable of delivering much faster speeds and greater data plans, and several more satellites will follow in the next five years. This should make Viasat the first global ISP in history, with service available almost anywhere in the world.

From the early days of slow, limited internet to blazing-fast broadband for everyone, ISPs have come a long way — and satellite may prove the most extraordinary breakthrough of them all.

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