A Brief History of the Internet


You know, those pre-recorded “beep” sounds were EXACTLY what the internet sounded like when I first heard it. No, it’s not a typing mistake. I heard the internet before I actually saw it. So much so that I still believe my cable internet is fake because it’s always so quiet. No, I didn’t hear the internet because I’m some kind of internet whisperer. We ALL heard the internet before we actually used it. Its arrival was heralded by a series of high-pitched screeches and digital buzzing that came through your telephone line. That’s how we knew the internet was coming.

In the past, we didn’t really have internet service providers (ISPs). We would just call each other on the phone, and our computers would buzz and chirp at each other. This communication was called a “handshake.” It sounds strange, but that’s how you connected your computer to the “internet” back then. The problem was, you had to be technically minded (know about UNIX) to know how to do it in a time when technicians weren’t really a thing yet. For a while, geeks were the only people on the internet. Geeks, spies, the military, and universities were the early users of the internet.

The early internet was very simple, with single machines communicating with each other through telephone lines. The telephone companies initially didn’t even know this type of internet traffic was passing through their networks, although they quickly caught on. Before there were ISPs, you had to have an account at a university or government institution to connect to the internet. But in the early 1990s, the internet started to accept commercial traffic, and there was an agreement with commercial internet users that they had to respect the protocol of free data peering. This meant that if they wanted their traffic to pass through the “bits of the internet” of other organizations, they had to accept other people’s traffic through their own bits of the internet based on the principles of modern net neutrality.

In 1994, the National Science Foundation took over the internet and assigned four private companies—WorldCom, Pacific Bell, Sprint, and Ameritech—to be the first ISPs to build strategically placed public access points in San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, and New Jersey.

As internet traffic increased over time, those public access points became congested, and the large telecommunications companies started building their own internet backbones, consisting of faster private access points. Initially, the larger, dominant backbone providers respected the peering protocol and engaged in peering agreements with smaller ISPs, meaning they would exchange internet traffic for free. This condition changed when UUNET, Sprint, and AT&T in 1997 violated the peering agreements and started charging smaller ISPs if they wanted access to their networks. This marked the beginning of the first net neutrality battle.

In the early days of the ISP industry, there were hundreds of commercial internet providers in the United States. According to PC Magazine at the time, the average monthly connection cost per account was around $17.50, with an additional $3-4 per hour for connection time. Even back then, these prices were quite high, and staying connected to the internet for long periods could quickly increase your phone bill.

There wasn’t much fun to be had on the internet at that time. It was still mostly geeks, businesspeople, universities, and governments using it. For many people, using the internet didn’t make sense, especially because you still had to connect using a command line or exclusive graphical user interface. Internet browsers and HTML to build web pages hadn’t been widely developed yet, and IBM/Microsoft were still in the process of incorporating internet technology into their operating systems and hardware.


A lot of things happened rapidly, and the ISP market heated up throughout 1995 in the US, becoming highly competitive. The dominant ISPs at the time were Netcom and UUNET, each with annual revenues of around $40-50 million. This data gives you an idea of the market size back then. While Netcom was leading the way by introducing the world’s first flat-rate internet pricing for the US consumer market, they also signed up business and corporate customers. It wasn’t just these two that were working hard to build the internet in its early days. There were also interexchange carriers, or large telecommunications providers, such as AT&T and MCI, as well as thousands of smaller regional ISPs.

The ISP market in its early days was highly fragmented, filled with different types of companies that all innovated and developed the internet in different ways to serve various user needs. At that time, internet users, both business and consumers, wanted two very different things. Consumers wanted cheap access above all else; they were tired of paying exorbitant fees to use the internet every month. Meanwhile, businesses were more focused on reliability and speed.