The Very Model of a Modem Major General
My first experience of domestic Internet was the entertainingly shoestring Internet Éireann.
In historical terms, Internet Éireann was perhaps comparable to the Velvet Underground, who, according to Brian Eno, never enjoyed much commerical success, but everyone who heard them started their own band.Via Wikipedia: McKenna, Kristine (October 1982). “Eno: Voyages in Time & Perception”. Musician. Retrieved November 8, 2012. “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold 30,000 copies in the first five years. The sales have picked up in the past few years, but I mean, that record was such an important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!” Despite IEunet being first, despite Ireland On-Line lasting longer and having a stronger vision, Internet Éireann had a good market positioning and was where many ordinary folks first encountered the flaky but exciting reality of an Internet connection.
Part of the reason for that can be easily understood from the survey of the Internet providers of 1996 reproduced in the table below, which characterises those providers by their facilities, their cost, and their reach.
Table 1: various service offerings by Irish ISPs, adapted from this ibiblio article, and dated to approximately 1996.
|Ireland On-Line||Nodes in Galway and Dublin. Well established. Very nice Windows interface or normal Internet access. SLIP/PPP also available, no ISDN as yet.||£25 registration and charges from £10/month for up 20hrs/month, £20/month unlimited access for a dialup, SLIP/PPP connection. Higher charges if you want domain names.||Phone: 091-592727 or 01-285-2700 email:,
|IEUNET||The main Internet backbone in Ireland. Nodes in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Shannon.||Charges £3/hr (£1.50/hr off peak).||Phone: 01- 6719361 email:
|Internet Éireann||New provider. The intention is to provide a straight no frills internet access similar to Demon in the UK. Node in Dublin.||£15 registration and then £10/month for unlimited use.||Phone: 01- 2781060 email:
A few things are obvious from the table. For a start, it’s clear that Internet Éireann’s pricing had two new and crucial properties for the time: it was un-metered (in other words, there was a flat fee for usage) and it had lower setup charges. New to Ireland, of course; this had been done before in a few places, most notably in the U.K. with Demon Internet.
In these days of unmetered (although often capped) relatively cheap Internet DSL service, it can sometimes be difficult to conceive of what the reality of an Internet connection in the mid-90s was like. First and foremost, consumer Internet service involved a device called a modem,
I actually had one of these “US Robotics” modems, and it was approximately as filthy as this one. CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons which transmitted data by squirting high-frequency tones down a phone line. People like me, born around the time plants were discovering photosynthesis, will recall the sound: it resembled an uptight cat getting increasingly hot and bothered, ultimately forced to screech white-hot white noise in frustration to get its owners attention. While it basically worked, and got us to where we are today, very few people actually liked it.
Users certainly didn’t, because the speed and reliability of the connection was predicated on phone line quality, which Telecom Éireann explicitly did not guarantee for anything other than transmitting voice. Often a connection would just stop and eventually hang up, particularly if someone helpfully picked up the phoneline elsewhere in the house. Of course, that was if you managed to get the other end to answer at all – many ISPs never had enough modems to actually answer the calls, either on the first or the forty-seventh ring. Finally, from the user point of view, not only did you have to buy an additional piece of hardware to connect to your ISP, getting that hardware to work was non-trivial. (For a few years, a whole industry of people who would come to your house and configure your modem flourished, until they too went the way of the buggy-whip makers.)
Now, if you were cleverer than I was at the time, you might have grasped the essential truth that a modem business is a cash-intensive, perhaps even capital-intensive business. Not only do you have to buy your key equipment, either modems themselves or some fancy box with the modems embedded on chips, you also have to rent the phone lines to answer (also known as “terminate”) those calls. The reality was that a large number of things could go wrong, before you even got to the question of poor-quality phone lines, which were a daily reality for tens of thousands of people living in Ireland.
First, you could buy the wrong thing. Alan Judge, then of Indigo, has a story about the Cisco 5800, supposedly a high-end modem concentrator, supposed to aggregate (up to) over a thousand modems in a single box, managed by command line. It never worked in Ireland, due the vagaries of the technical specifications of the phone network, and the VP of the product ended up flying to Ireland to deliver a personal apology to Indigo.Another box, the 5300, was substantially more reliable, and was widely used. Alan has another story about just how “frontier” all of this was: “In the early days of ISDN, IEunet got one of the first 3rd party ISDN PRAs. I think we were testing with a Livingston Portmaster in some hacky T1 configuration. Anyway, we managed to crash the exchange due to some bug and got summoned to talk to TE at the Green!”
Secondly, you could buy too much of the right thing, in which case you had sunk money in equipment that was just sitting there, consuming electricity and gently warming the planet. Or, as above, you could buy too little of the right thing, in which case your modems would be in continuous use (good) but your customers would be frustrated and annoyed that their subscription was not in fact buying them what they thought it was buying them, because they could never actually get through to use it (bad). This of course brought negative publicity but also positive publicity; surely, ran the thinking, it wouldn’t be so popular if it wasn’t good?
(Also, buying more stuff cost money, and in the famously cheap operating environment of Ireland, that was a real concern.)
So most of the pressures were towards oversubscription, as it was called. On top of that list of difficulties, providers had even less leverage with the phone line provider than actual end-users did to get the reliability problems fixed.Chalk it up to competitive pressure. However, at the start, many ISPs ended up doing something like this, because those were the conditions around them.
Done the State some service
Internet Éireann made some crucial decisions at the right time: they were betting on a growth market, which it was, and an ability to sweat their assets. In the mid-1990s ISP business, this meant running their modem pool “hot”, i.e. having too few of them for the number of customers, as discussed above. It was a straightforward value-for-money consumer play, whose appeal was certainly based on cost, but also the even then staggeringly large array of services available to anyone at the other end of a dial-up connection. (See, for example, the below image, which shows a leaflet advertising Internet Éireann’s services.)
This leaflet advertises a number of wonderful facilities, the majority of which have now perished, or been swallowed up by the hypergrowth of the web in general: “File Transfer”, “Telnet”, “Archie”, “Gopher”, and so on. Most of these are now irrelevant, obsolete, dangerous, or otherwise seriously unfashionable. (The most interesting of these precursors would probably be Gopher, which had a hierachical structuring of information that looks quite familiar to anyone who has used brochureware websites.)Today, of course, the natural cognitive unit when one is thinking about implementing an Internet application that people might actually use is the website. At the time of the leaflet however, there was no such uniformity of approach. Instead of running everything over the web, developers and network architects designed new protocols for transferring information in a beautiful variety of ways. Using the Internet was therefore (typically, for a home user) not only a matter of mastering the specifics of modem connections, but also of finding which application was suitable for retrieving your specific information: UseNet used News Readers, while a university library would often require Telnet, and so on. At the time, this exotic and playful nomenclature felt like the secret knowledge separating us, the Internet insiders, from the rest of the world. It was not a barrier – it was a positive identity.
Internet Éireann was at the forefront of offering this brave new world to its customers, and there were many who felt passionate about it. The company principals were Steve O’ Hara-Smith, his wife Karen, and his mother-in-law Mary; Steve’s brother Nick was also involved. Steve himself was well-respected technically, and at least initially, the service worked very well. Many of us, Internet Éireann’s first users, remarked on how buying this service felt like being a member of a club or small community, rather than a commercial transaction, and the Internet Éireann user group meetings were rightly famous for catalysing the energy that everyone involved felt was coursing through the industry.Ireland On-Line’s were also well-regarded for similar reasons, according to Barry Flanagan. That optimism, justified in the case of the industry in general, was unfortunately specifically misplaced in the case of Internet Éireann, as we shall see.
Speaking of Bizarre
Multiple sources (including Steve’s brother Nick, and Alex French, then of Internet ÉireannAlex himself had initially got his job with Internet Éireann because he was an early subscriber, with an account he had been bought as a present. As one of the first Mac users, he therefore spent a long while on the phone with Steve fixing Mac connection problems: TCP settings and things like that. Eventually this somehow turned into a job. ) allege that much of the decision-making within Internet Éireann took more inspiration from The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success than The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Alex recalls visiting the O’Hara-Smith’s house in Celbridge – a town where I lived for many years, but never encountered them – and Mary commenting that she “liked his aura”. Nick wrote in his memoir that, amongst other things, Mary attempted to train him to be a medium, and had repeated portions of phone calls to him that she was in theory not party to, via a mechanism she referred to as telepathy. (Sadly, this mechanism was not available to the billing department.)
In a strange turn of fate, these methods of decision-making proved to have consequences for the history of the Irish ISP market. Alex French relates the story of the roundabout founding of Club Internet, a small startup:
It was actually Mary who was ultimately responsible for the founding of Club Internet as it became. Tom Kelly and Stuart Fogarty of Aubrey Fogarty Associates wanted to do an Internet-related value- added-services company, where you would get special deals on for example night club visits, or hotel deals or similar – much like O2 Priority operates today. I had met Tom through the Internet Éireann user group, and brokered a deal whereby Internet Éireann would provide the actual service, and ClubI would essentially become a rebranded reseller of the Internet Éireann facilities. It was a done deal, except when Tom [Kelly] turned up at Steve’s house to finalise it, Mary took a dislike to his aura, and Tom decided that he had to do it himself.
Inadvertently creating a competitor out of a possible collaborator was not the end of Internet Éireann’s troubles. The company also had to contend with a flood that destroyed equipment and brought chaos for a few weeks (employees reported “drying out modems with handryers in the loos”). The company was also not immune from the standard set of problems you get when you let a bunch of relatively inexperienced people run things without all that much supervision. Alex French again:
Probably my worst day there was when I was [tracking down a technical problem]. Internet Éireann had two servers, they were called Gateway 1 and Gateway 2 – which were the two servers which ran all the dial-in, all the newsfeeds, all the email – everything! There was something not behaving itself properly, however. I was going through stuff and trying to figure out what the hell was going on and eventually found this file which looked like it shouldn’t be there.At this point, large AROOGA AROOGA noises are probably going off in experienced system administrator’s heads. I thought, “Ah, this might be it. This might be the problem. Maybe somebody’s hacked in?” So me and a couple of other guys had a look at it and we decided we were going to delete it. Unfortunately it turned out to be a square-bracket, also known as /bin/test, the program almost every script on the system ran in order to make any kind of if-then decision. That broke almost everything.
In a way, the strange and chaotic atmosphere helped strange and chaotic things to happen, or perhaps they fed off each other in some fashion. For example, a competitor called Internet Ireland was set up literally in the back room of Internet Éireann’s offices, until eventually they clashed with Mary and moved to Stephen Street. More seriously, there were persistent and long-running financial problems with the company, mostly related to their apparent inability to actually bill customers – an oddly common failing with Irish businesses.Perhaps part of this was due to low levels of access to credit for consumers and businesses. This was not helped by their startup situation – established businesses, although awkward and slow-moving in many ways, usually have some consistency to their bill-paying machinery. Not so for the new (and furthermore consumer-targeted) business, which usually has to invest significantly in people who will send stern letters out to the tardy, answer questions from the querulous over the phone, and generally herd the sullen cats of the customer base into paying for something, usually well after they should have. Despite having some reasonable proportion of the dialup market, the company always had cashflow problems.
The omens became more, well, ominous, in approximately September of 1995. Nick O’ Hara-Smith recalls that Mary confided in him at that stage that the business was short of money, perhaps related to the excessive spending habits of the family. According to Nick, “the dogs [of the household] were given organic braising steak, costing as much to feed each week as an average family.” (This was corroborated at the liquidator’s meeting, where it emerged that company money had been spent on couriering said meat from Dublin to Celbridge.) In today’s world of bankers, plutocrats, bloated salaries and bilious bonuses, this might not seem like much, but at the time it was a substantial sum.
The upgrade to Internet Éireann’s bandwidth occasioned by customer growth turned out to have negative consequences too: way behind on payments, Nick O’ Hara-Smith was persuaded to speak to WorldLinkAlex French recalls: “Worldlink did cheap mobile phone calls and things like that. They were based in the same building and are now based across the road, I think. So Internet Éireann had rented capacity off them and connected in to somebody over in the States or Canada. But they owed a lot of money.” on behalf of the company in order to try to arrive at a deal, which unfortunately failed – and after he returned to the U.K., Internet Éireann’s landlord’s solicitors sent him a letter stating that they were owed “$50,000” in back rent. As a personal guarantor, Nick apparently had to pay it or the company would be wound up. Regardless of the ins and outs, creditors eventually caught up with the company, and in February 1996, Steve sent an email from
firstname.lastname@example.org informing users that the company, and its services, had shut down. To quote from The Irish Times:
THE first Irish Internet service provider to go into liquidation had liabilities of £123,594, while its assets – mainly computer equipment – were valued at a mere £3,978. A stormy creditors’ meeting was told on Friday that Internet Éireann went into voluntary liquidation early last month with about 12,000 users. Its creditors included one of its suppliers, SM Communications (which registered a £20,000 judgment against it), the Revenue Commissioners (owed £15,000), the telecommunications company Sprint (£14,500) and the property company Designated Area Development (£7,500).
That was far from the final chapter, however. Even after the liquidation and the subsequent dispersal of Internet Éireann’s employees to the far corners of the industry, the question of what to do with the customer base – in many ways the sole meaningful asset of the company – was not without controversy. As Stephen Jacob, TCD Computer Science graduate of the time, puts it:
When Internet Éireann went out of business, both Ireland On-Line and Indigo offered to honour the subscriptions of Internet Éireann customers left without an account part-way through their subscription. Indigo was, it turned out, given the password file containing all the usernames and passwords (encrypted) of the users of Internet Éireann. Indigo used this password file to add Internet Éireann’s users’ accounts to their system.
Unfortunately, the file in question, containing hidden but (in some cases) reversible password information was left in a publicly accessible area of Indigo’s anonymous file-transfer system. This meant that hundreds, potentially thousands of people were exposed to having their email read, Internet identities stolen, or web pages changed against their will, if someone had happened to notice the file lying around and run a password cracker against it.
Stephen quotes Colm Grealy of Ireland On-Line saying, “When we made the offer [for the customer base] … we took this all in good faith … and presumed that people wouldn’t abuse it … We issued [the old customers] with new user names and passwords.” Apparently Ireland On-Line “were certainly not offered” Internet Éireann’s username/password database or any information contained within it.
We took a view at the time when Internet Éireann went into difficulties that its major asset was its customer database, so it was no longer up to the company itself to dispose of that asset once it went into liquidation.
An ignominious end for what was a trailblazing, and disproportionately influential, Internet services company. Despite the more bizarre aspects of IE’s rise and fall, it is important to look at what IE achieved; again, we turn to Alex French:
They caught a lot of heat after those stories came out, but it’s important to remember that they were instrumental in bringing flat-rate Internet subscriptions to Ireland, as well as making access affordable, promoting the use of PPP, and pushing Ireland On-Line and IEunet to faster modems. Steve was (and I presume still is) a brilliant guy. At their peak they had quite a substantial share of the Irish access market.
While it’s important to acknowledge what they did, not everyone agrees that Internet Éireann was as seminal as it is claimed above. Nick Hilliard, one of the key craftsmen and architects of the Irish Internet, dissents, claiming that their product was essentially a ripoff of the Demon “tenner-a-month” model imported from the UK but to no great effect, due to the very asset-sweating that was buying them time:
I remember being nonplussed by them. We had meetings about them in IEunet but the consensus was: if a customer wanted to go to them, they’d be back shortly. Usually they were. […] What I remember clearly was that I thought that £500 for lifetime internet access was possibly worth it, but probably not – and it drew with it the inevitable suggestion that they were having serious cashflow problems to come out with a stunt like that. I didn’t bite. A couple of people did, and had a couple of months of use before the whole thing came crashing down.
In its few short years,Registered in April 1994, liquidated in March 1996. Internet Éireann had been part of larger changes in their industry than most other companies ever see. But let us move to one of the spinoffs we alluded to above.