The 90s were a weird decade, and not just because of a strange obsession with flannel. Computers were just becoming a mass-market phenomenon, and nobody really quite grasped what that was going to mean. When I entered college in the late 90s, the campus was still littered with dumb terminals wired up to the VAX. Just a few years before, they’d installed the latest thing in networking- 100Base-TX Ethernet- to all of the dorm rooms and most of the classrooms. They loved their brand new network, and didn’t want punk kids messing it up, so you couldn’t just connect your computer to the network (you probably didn’t have a network card anyway). Instead, they had an outside vendor set up an office in a storage room on campus. You had to lug your tower over there, they’d take your computer for a week or two, and then give it back to you with a new NIC, a bunch of crapware, and a note which said your computer was cleared to use the network. You could then take that note over to the IT offices, and they’d put in a work order to activate the network port in your dorm room, and give you an Ethernet cable. Oh, and this entire process cost $200.
Eventually, they wised up, kicked the outside vendor off campus, and CS majors like myself got to make a couple of bucks installing NICs into freshmen’s computers. I think many of us might have had that sort of experience. Sabrina did a similar turn in her teens, helping a small ISP get people connected via modem or ADSL, but encountered a few… special edge cases.
One call was a pretty standard example: a family had just gotten a new modem, and wanted to connect their computer to the information superhighway… but couldn’t. Yes, they had a dialtone. Yes, the modem dialed. No, it couldn’t connect. Remote diagnostic options exhausted, Sabrina went on site. This small ISP primarily served a small city, but that city was surrounded by a large stretch of rural farmland that stretched into mountains. Before long, Sabrina found herself on gravel roads, driving past signs that warned, “No Trespassing” (and had been peppered with shotgun pellets to drive home the point). Eventually, she found the house- a quiet little place nestled well back into the woods. She greeted the family, waded through a handful of screaming kids, and went straight to the phone first. She picked up the handset.
There were voices talking on the phone.
“Do you have another handset?” Sabrina asked. “I’ll need everybody to hang up so I can debug things.”
“What?” the mother said, “Oh, no. We’ve just got the one. But it is a party line.”
“A what?” Sabrina asked.
“A party line. We share a loop with the whole neighborhood.”
Sabrina was a little flummoxed, since this hardly seemed like a neighborhood- their nearest neighbor was miles away- but as someone who grew up in the city, she’d never even heard of a “party-line”, as they were mostly extinct everywhere in the country. Instead of giving each subscriber their own phone line, sometime in the past century, the phone company had installed a loop of cable all around the region. Each handset was attached to the entire loop, which meant everyone in the service area shared a single phone line. There was no call privacy, and there was certainly no way to use a modem under those conditions. Sabrina explained the problem to the family.
“Well, the phone company has been after us to get a single line, but it just seems so silly when what we have works just fine. But, I guess if we need it to use the Internet…”
After leaving that strange intersection of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sabrina’s next call took her back into the city. There was a customer complaining that they’d just installed the software that came with their ADSL modem, but couldn’t connect to the Internet. This brought her into her town’s business district, where she found a the law offices of Duey, Cheatum & Howe. Mr. Duey brought her to his shiny new computer, a Pentium with a Yamaha CDR100- the $5,000 CD-R that Sabrina never thought she’d see in person.
“Now,” he said, “let me show you what I did.” He put a CD into the regular optical drive. This CD was not one of the ISP’s discs, but instead, was a duplicated disk simply labeled with black marker as “Internet”. Once he brought up the installer, however, it was clear that it was their software. He went through the installer, completely ignoring Sabrina until he had finished demonstrating exactly what he had done to set up the Internet. Once the he failed to connect, he turned to her and said, “Well?”
“Well… I’ll need to look at your modem.”
“Your modem? The thing you hooked up to the ADSL line?” Sabrina asked. “It’s a little box…”
“I don’t have one of those. I just have the CD.”
“Right…” Sabrina said. “But… you need one. A modem, I mean.”
“What? That’s nonsense. My neighbors bought Internet from your company. I borrowed the disc, made a copy, and now I want Internet at my office. I copy all sorts of programs from my neighbor,” the lawyer explained. “I paid all that money for a CD burner, and I want to get my money’s worth out of it.”
“You… you’re a lawyer,” Sabrina said, scandalized. “That’s illegal. And… you copied our software, installed it without a subscription, and then called us for technical support?”
“Honey, I think I know just a little bit more about what’s illegal or not. And you know what is illegal, offering a service that doesn’t actually work! I want the Internet on this computer, and I want it now missy.”
Sabrina confessed that she couldn’t get it to work, and left him with the number to the ISP’s sales department. She then beat a hasty retreat and went out on the next service call.