Seattle Peoples' Internet, 1992-1999

A co-operative Internet Service Provider offering 24-hour dedicated access in the era of 28.8kbps dial-up

27 November 2017

In 1996, we launched the Seattle Peoples' Internet by co-locating our equipment at an upstart internet cafe in Belltown called Speakeasy.

The deal was that we paid for their most expensive monthly line item: the T1 circuit. We covered 100% of the T1 monthly cost yet were allocated only 50% of the bandwidth, if I recall. We recruited enough co-op members to cover that fee before beginning and had a wait-list on Day One.

Our PortMaster was configured to monitor monthly bandwidth consumption per co-op member. We accommodated spikes in traffic of individual members, but if the aggregate went above some threshold, the co-op would pay more to Speakeasy.

The intent here was that our overage fees would help pay for a second T1, thereby adding redundancy and increasing opportunities for peering.

We also had some co-location hosts in their rack, which was around the corner from the coffee machine in those days.

Member fee schedule was proportional to type/speed of connection used and anticipated usage. Beyond that, membership was at cost.

Internally, co-op members would resolve financial details among ourselves and would send a single consolidated payment check per month.

The agreement was fair and balanced. It allowed our members physical access to reboot a piece of co-located equipment, but any maintenance required pulling and removing the machine. (Again, rack was in tight quarters of a coffee shop.)

Since this was mid-1990’s, all members supplied their own pair of modems for each side which were mostly 28.8kbps back then. I think one person was going with ISDN, and maybe another had Telebit Trailblazer 56k.

I’d like to think that upon seeing how this was a benefit to the cafe’s financial statements that it gave Gretchen, Mike, Tyler, Chris, et al the idea to move into the larger ISP space for which they then became known.

Early History

The effort began with community action some time in 1992 for getting the Seattle Public Library to provide public internet access. They already offered Telnet access to the card catalog and reservation system.

Once the Library’s needs seemed to be adequately on track, a splinter group continued round-table talks about a people’s Internet as co-operative ISP. This was led by Adam Feuer, who went on in late 1995 to be one of three initial founders of what is now named F5 Networks (FFIV).

By early 1994, members were those who had put money into the pot: USD$200 deposit for full membership, a fraction of that for entry level access. Monthly fees were to be at cost.

Not enough people put in the full amount, so the co-op wasn’t able to launch as such.

Fortunately, Semaphore used their own router and ran this as a pseudo-commercial ISP. The ISP portion of the business operated at a financial loss but served the purposes of the sponsoring business for a while.

By late 1995, that version of the ISP operation was no longer viable.

Round-table discussions emerged again, and a new leader took up the cause.

Upstream Agreement

Our contractual agreement with Speakeasy was fair to all parties.

Having spent some time in 1994 with tech people launching an early Internet cafe in Manhattan, @Cafe in the East Village, this insight helped in negotiations with Speakeasy’s owners. By immediately and generously addressing their potential pain-points, a balanced agreement was signed within a few weeks.

The intent from the first draft agreement shown to them was for us to be a pleasure for them: covering their biggest financial liability while having them barely notice our presence.

Because Speakeasy itself operated internally as a co-operative among its founders, this was a serendipitous partnership. Their full picture was: coffee shop, bistro, tavern, performance space and art curated from local artists– each segment managed by one of the Speakeasy Cafe principals. Mike Apgar was our primary business contact, yet Gretchen Apgar was very active in most of our negotiations, always asking precisely the right questions.

The prospect of one co-op helping another was an important consideration on both sides of the discussion.

Terms For Members

Terms of Service to our members was essentially:

Don’t do anything that would run afoul of our upstream service providers.

There were requirements and procedures to be followed for when and how to have physical access to the rack. Certain hours were no-go in consideration of cafe peak operation. Otherwise, a phone call or email was required in advance– mostly being considerate so cafe staff can expect another body in that part of their space. There was a fairly short bullet list of these details, including phone numbers.

Technical members of Speakeasy management, such as Tyler Apgar and sys-admin Chris, were given root login access to our router plus permission to power-off any co-located server that was deemed to be misbehaving.

Additional details were for the fee schedule.

Little was captured by the Internet Archive’s crawler, unfortunately.

Telecomm, circa 1996

The US Telecommunications Act of 1996 had not yet been ratified, so flood-gates to the Internet had not yet been blown-off their hinges.

These were the days of dial-up modems.

But this was 24-hour dedicated Internet access with static IP addresses, which was rare in the public sector except for universities and large corporations.

Elsewhere within the tech world, Netscape had their IPO the year prior, Spry offered “Internet in a box” with the additional driver to make Microsoft Windows 3.x able to speak TCP/IP. Windows 95 had just been released to much fan-fair merely months earlier. Steve Jobs had yet to return to Apple Computer.

Tech-wise, 28.8kbps (V.34-Draft) modems were high-end for commodity off-the-shelf gear, and 14.4 were commonplace. ISDN had been around since the 1980’s but expensive and finicky. One member openly discussed the possibility of running a “dry pair” of copper wires, such as was common for alarm monitoring systems.

The most common configuration used emerging PPP– or older yet more stable SLIP– that would automatically redial upon a dropped connection. For simplicity of router configuration, we asked that members perform the redial from their home/business side.

As a member and then-Principal for the co-op, this was how an earlier version of the play.org website was connected to the Internet.

PortMaster (router)

Again, the first incarnation used a member company’s own router.

The re-launch had a different unit contributed by another one of the members. This was a Livingston PortMaster 2 with RS-232 ports for connecting dial-up modems. Because this model had been around for a number of years by 1996, it was possible to find one used at a fair price.

In each case, the contributed router lowered the barrier to entry for each member.

Without this, it was unlikely that the co-op ISP would have ever launched.

In both iterations, we were bound by number of physical ports on the back of the router. This model of PortMaster was not hardware upgradable beyond ROM chip.

For comparison, the NYC internet cafe in 1994 was using Zyxel PCI boards plugged into a Linux or BSD host, for which an i486 would have sufficed. They could add capacity with minimal expense by adding another PCI card.

Duration

The co-op ISP ran for a couple of years before it was simpler and easier to get early Broadband service from commercial providers.

By 1999, Broadband services such as DSL were becoming available from various providers.

The PortMaster was switched off in that year.

Future Beyond 2017

Today, mesh networking might be a consideration if physical infrastructure of the so-called “last mile” or “curb to wall” span leaves one wanting.

Perhaps, your goal is to be free as in libre: decentralized, distributed, decontrolled in the era of two-tier Internet (commonly called lack of network neutrality).

There are SDKs to get you started.

Emerging standards for networking low-powered devices are available, if your ISP is for something other than people browsing the web.

Summary

It required merely one person to take up the initiative.

Once momentum was building, someone else contributed a key component at the right time.

Be fair to yourselves and to your partners while making that partnership a pleasure– not just pain-free.

Let it last so long as it serves a legitimate purpose.

More concisely: Begin. Then, continue. Be gracious and grateful. Know when to leave.

Copyright © 2017 Daniel Joseph Pezely
May be licensed via Creative Commons Attribution.