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Angst and Awe On the Internet
As a student, working with Prof. Yuan Shi and other Temple professors,
Freedman developed a toolkit for distributed processing on Suns and presented
a paper in London in 1989 at a conference on computer-aided software engineering.
As his time at Temple drew to a close, he began contemplating graduate
school. Everyone was very surprised that anyone who could do anything
on the outside was going to graduate school, he says, but
Stony Brook on Long Island offered me a nice job as a research assistant
in the lab and I went up there.
After graduating from Temple, Freedman also encountered the harsh facts
of life in the world beyond college computer laboratories. With their
local-area networks and T-1 links to the Internet, universities offered
a revel for budding cybernauts. Marc Andreessen of Netscape discovered
a similar disjunction between college lab and residential communications.
At LANs end was a communications cliff and a bandwidth scandal.
Most homes and offices connected to the world only through twisted-pair,
four-kilohertz, copper telephone wires.
In October of 1992, Freedman became an ISP chiefly to continue his college
revels by chasing bandwidth. Twenty-three at the time and engaged, he
could still recall his days in high school and remembered how much he
had learned from the Internet through his fathers PDP-11. He began
to fill up his basement with second-hand Suns. Since that time, Freedman
has purchased scores of Sun machines, mostly at prices well below new
Pentium levels, all using Berkeley Unix, equipped by Bill Joy with fast
TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol) for Internet
Beginning with 40 customers from local bulletin board systems, Freedman
provided access through the serial ports of a single SPARCstation IPC
with a 200-megabyte hard drive and 12 megabytes of memory that he purchased
secondhand for $1,500. The serial ports ran up to 38.4 kilobits per second,
linked to 14.4-kilobit-per-second Zoom and Supra modems connected to POTS
(plain old telephone service) outside lines running from the phone companys
central office. Costing a total of some $4,000, the system worked well
enough until his clientele began to multiply and the modems balked at
continual resetting. In April 1992, he bought a 16-port Iolan terminal
server that answered the phones and connected subscribers to the Sun servers,
which supplied e-mail, Usenet news, Gopher searches, Telnet and file transfer
services in a Unix environment.
In June of 1992 emerged the menace of competition. A local entrepreneur
launched Voicenet by simply linking a 386 PC with a modem to each phone
line through a terminal server. Charging fees several times higher than
Net Accesss, Voicenet thrived through the device of hiring two full-time
people to scan in pictures from porno magazines for what Freedman describes
as the sticky keyboard set. Eventually the adult
bulletin board service enlisted some 5,000 members paying $4 per hour
to peruse images. Nonetheless, Voicenet protested what it called Net Accesss
predatory low pricing, a $12.50 to $20 flat rate per month with no full-time
employees to pay.
IN THE EARLY YEARS of the Nets development, the late `80s, the Internet
business outside campuses and corporations was a small-time and sometimes
tacky trade. In 1992, the entire Net comprised a million linked computers,
many of them in university and government labs. It wasnt until November
1993 that Net Access acquired a dedicated 56-kilobit line for direct connection
to an official network access point. Costing $400 per month, it multiplexed
22 dial-up modems among 250 users. With the Mosaic World Wide Web browser
yet to catch on outside the universities, Net Access did not even have
to supply SLIP (serial line interface protocol) or PPP (point-to-point
protocol) accounts, which shield the user from the details of Unix.
Freedman, however, saw the need for new technology to link people to the
full resources of the Net without having to know abstruse Unix commands.
As a professional geek, writing code is my true calling, he
says, adding that he threw himself into this work. Although the program
was eclipsed by Mosaic, Lynx and other approaches, he still believes that
his software provided easier access to the Internet, complete with the
ability to trace routes and ping remote machines. Enabling
users to log in to the program in 1992, he put Net Access on the technological
forefront of ISPs.
The largest challenge for an ISP, then and now, is managing the floods
of bits engulfing a Usenet news server at a rate of some 500 megabytes
per day, five news articles per second, each with a unique identification
that has to be scanned to assure that the news is fresh and not duplicated.
The heart of the Internet until the arrival of the World Wide Weband
still cherished more than the Web by many Internet veteransUsenet
is the huge collection of textual bulletin boards and other information
troves and exchanges from which the communities of the Net exfoliate.
As Steve Willens of Livingston Enterprises puts it: This is the
real source of the Internet as we know it and the challenge that forced
the development of technology specialized for the Netnotably
Livingston communications servers that linked modems to the Net through
fast comports functioning with compression at 115.2 kilobits per second.
In 1994, Freedman recognized he had a major business on his hands. He
decided to lease a T-1 line from PREP-NET (Pennsylvania Research and Economic
Partnership Network), which required a prepayment of $1,000 per month.
With 50 phone lines and modems and 500 users, he broke all ties with Stony
Brook and began hiring people to handle a rising tide of traffic and a
surging demand for technical support.
That summer, he had three full-time people: Myself, my wife, Gail,
and my 20-year-old brother, Noam. Working with him made me realize why
people pay me so much money as a consultant [up to $150 an hour]. He served
as a kind of Avi echo, intuitively knowing what I wanted and when.
A student in computer science at the University of Chicago, Noam is in
the process of extending the business to that city, while Avi has established
points of presence in New York and Washington, D.C. He has hired five
Net Access customers, none with college degrees, to provide technical
support full time as the number of users has climbed at a pace of some
15% per month since the end of 1994.
For the links to other cities, Freedman relied on advice from telecommunications
consultant Gordon Jacobson, a Penn alumnus who maintains close links to
the Penn School of Engineering, where his father graduated. With Jacobsons
help, Freedman is ending 1995 with a fiber circuit connecting him to MAE
East at 45 megabits a second, a 10-megabit-per-second link to Sprints
network-access point, and more than half a dozen point-to- point T-1 lines,
all for well under half of the normally tariffed prices for these services.
With increasing broadband connectivity, Net Access commands more than
half as much bandwidth at the nerve centers of the Net as Netcom, which
has 50 times more customers.
Though indispensable, technology alone cannot sustain a successful ISP.
It is people that make the vital difference. If Freedman had originally
hired people to perform the work that he did himself part-timekeeping
the machines running, maintaining software, recovering from disasters,
installing and tuning equipment and circuitshe would have
incurred expenses of some $100,000 per year and his financial model would
have collapsed. The reason many corporations are so slow to develop Internet
programs is not the lack of equipment but the dearth of personnel. The
large companies pursuing Net Access did not care about Freedmans
rooms full of gear. They were after Freedman himself.
FREEDMANS ENTREPRENEURSHIP and technology ride on a tide of other
enterprise by the suppliers of Internet gear. These, too, are not huge
telephone company equipment manufacturers or rising software monopolists
but mostly small or medium-size companies, led by young entrepreneurs,
fighting to survive in the most intensely competitive arena of the world