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The Internet of the 90s: When I first started working on the Internet for 20 hours, an email from the head of my ISP

Bang Edwards | Eric Lawson | Getty Images

“When checking the system this morning, I noticed that your account has been logged on for more than 20 hours,” began a December 1998 email from the head of a telephone Internet service provider (ISP). Our service is unlimited, but we require that you use Connect while you are logged in.

Today, when everyone seems to be online 24/7 through smartphones and broadband, I’d be weird if I He was not online for 20 hours straight. But 1998 in Raleigh, North Carolina was different. In the era of copper telephone lines and dial-up modems, Internet access was not usually a permanent requirement for the home user in the United States. Every busy phone line means another ISP customer can’t use it – and no one can call you either.

But I’m putting myself forward – why do I have an email from 1998?

A voice from the past

Save everything. That’s just what I do.

Being a data archivist has served me well throughout my technical writing career. About eight years ago, I decided to dig through my archives for old email files and import them all into Apple Mail for OS X, organizing them chronologically so I could look at them all in one place. I’ve found emails from 1995, when I started using a POP3 client instead of Pine. While browsing emails from 1998, I came across a strange nugget from another era that blew me away.

From: Eugene J. Forney III
Date: December 18, 1998 at 11:21 am
Subject: On the Internet for 20 hours straight

Thank you for allowing NetWorks to provide your internet service.

I am writing because when I was checking the system this morning
You notice that you have been logged into your account for more than 20 hours.

Our service is unlimited, but we really ask you to use it
Connect while logged in. This was not the case sometimes with
your account.

We must ask you to take measures to ensure that the connection is then disconnected
any particular session. Our resources shall be shared among many clients,
And the only way to achieve that is to shut people down
contact when they are not actively using it.

Please help with this by checking and adjusting your connection settings
To disconnect after 30 minutes of inactivity. Please also deselect
The option in your email program that automatically checks mail every 10 minutes
minutes, or set it to a number greater than 30 minutes.

If you need help locating these settings or want to discuss this
Further, please contact me at this email address or at our offices at
518-0351 or 518-8034.

Jane Forney

I vaguely remember receiving this email and thinking it was silly because the connection was supposedly “unlimited”. My family paid a monthly fee for NetWorks ($24.95 “family plan” for 3 user IDs) which allowed me, my parents, and my brother to get online as much as we wanted—or so I thought. I showed the email to my dad, who ignored it.

Between 1995 and 2000, I used a dial-up ISP, which meant I had to connect to my ISP using a regular copper phone line and a dial-up modem that ran anywhere between 14.4kbps and 56kbps over the years. Since most people also use their phone lines to speak with their voice, there was an underlying assumption that most calls to the ISP would be temporary. If your line is busy, you will miss incoming calls. In my situation, my parents set up a second phone line exclusively for my BBS in 1993 so I could spend as much time on the Internet as necessary without worrying about blocking incoming phone calls to my family.

One of the main issues I had with the email was hinting that I hadn’t used my internet connection during those 20 hours. I’m pretty sure I’ve been using it, and not just to check email automatically every 30 minutes, as email suggests.



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