Dawn of the dial-up community

The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village. Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962

While the universities were playing around with computer gateways, early Commodore, Atari, Amstrad, PC, and Macintosh users in New Zealand and around the world, were creating their own dial-in communities to access games and software or share opinions and information.

The first electronic bulletin boards (BBS) appeared in the late 1970s. They were essentially discussion platforms or notice boards for the technically literate, usually set up by computer clubs or electronics hobbyists. They predated the Internet using conferencing or chat room-style software so people could, through dialling a specific phone number during certain hours, read or respond to messages or join discussion groups.

Early membership was often invitation only, geared around the interests of one or two individuals. Topics of interest ranged wildly from software problems and cracking code to gaming shortcuts or talking about the latest movies, music, or technological breakthroughs. Other groups were made up sci-fi fans, budding astronomers, home electronics enthusiasts, genealogy junkies, greenies, or political activists.

Enthusiasts would post anything that might be of interest to other members, often gaining access to wider resources such as Usenet newsgroups through their contacts at universities. Many BBS hosts, or sysops (system operators) expanded their equipment and services to the point where they began charging for access. The bulletin board remained the main on-line connection for early computing and communications enthusiasts until the early 1990s.

In New Zealand BBS grew from a handful to more than 100 dial-up outposts, including The Tower, The Cave, Springboard, Equinox, Crystal Lights, The Labyrinth, The Asylum, The Bathtub, Enigma, Mousehole, Purgatory, The Toolshed, Mirth Control, Status, Actrix, Kappa Crucis, Pinnacle, Demi Monde, Nacjack (neurological activity controller), and Malleus Maleficarum.

At the peak of BBS popularity around 1990–1992, there were an estimated 150,000 computers in New Zealand homes, more than 100 BBS and thousands of subscribers, many logging into multiple discussion boards in search of information and stimulation. Lists of BBS were regularly published in local computer magazines including Bits & Bytes to help people find their area of interest.

BBS communities thrived in Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, and Hamilton. The Wellington community grew from the city council’s free-access CityNet. Otago University had a whole machine room named around Lord of the Rings (LOTR) characters that hosted BBS, and Waikato University had the legendary Simon Travaglia, who ran his own BBS and created the BOFH (bastard operator from hell)[1] stories . He is alleged to have overclocked his 386 so much that it caught fire. He took a photo of it and posted it on-line.

Feeding the on-line frenzy

Richard Vowles’ pioneering BBS were known for their free newsfeeds, macabre names, and innovative software hacks that broke down network boundaries. He launched his first bulletin board in 1983 when he was 14 years old, using an Amstrad computer and a 300k modem. He had little interest in the hardware or BBS content; his focus was on the software. He wrote his BBS on the Amstrad in Assembly language and even hacked the BIOS (basic input/output system) to get more data on a floppy disk. An early floppy disk had a capacity of 400Kb but once Vowles had completed his hack of the available sectors he claimed it would hold 600–700Kb.

His entry-level efforts soon became famous under the name Nacjack, taken from a role-playing game (RPG) called Cyberpunk. “This was the reengineering of my BBS from Amstrad to PC and DOS to Unix, which was later rewritten again in C to become Malleus Maleficarum, a host machine that lived in a cupboard under the stairs.” Malleus Maleficarum[2] was named after the Catholic Church ‘witch hunters handbook’ published in 1486 by two official German Dominican inquisitors, which Vowles claimed was responsible for more deaths of innocent people than any other book but the Bible in the Middle Ages. “It was just a cool name,” he said.

Vowles enjoyed the challenge of building gateways between different networks and making friends with common interests. The core technology used by most BBS was Fidonet,[3] which was a technology as well as a network. As the more mainstream chat rooms and message boards filled with people discussing genealogy and gardening, the younger, more technically oriented geeks exited the ‘old persons’ network and built their own outposts. They preferred to operate at the fringe where more edgy and even subversive topics might be discussed – how to hack into certain programs, the merits of different BBS software and technology trends. That’s where another Vowles BBS, Demi Monde, gained popularity. That was also where you went to find out where the parties were.

Some of those parties were run by Bernadette Mooney, who became a kind of mother of the Auckland BBS community. She was one of the few women involved, and haunted almost every hip site, running appropriate parties at various times. Most of those who turned up were 15-to-16-year-olds glad to be among peers; those who could hold their own when it came to discussing everything from code to gaming strategy or what was happening in the on-line community.

Mooney had taken an interest in the mid-1980s, when one of her son’s school friends loaned her family a modem. She soon bought her own and acquired software to originate her own presence. She had been made redundant from a role at the Share Registry, was studying for an arts degree at Auckland University, taking on part-time secretarial work, and had two intermediate school age children. “I remember chatting to a sysop one night, and he had to excuse himself as he had a Stage II calculus lecture at 10am next day. He was rather surprised when I told him I had a Stage III metaphysics paper at 9 a.m. Perhaps he thought I was a teenager.”

Mooney’s site was Pinnacle Club BBS, a name suggested by the author of the Canadian software she used, which had the ability to run ‘doors,’ or separate programs for members. The most popular was the Pyroto Mountain Gaming System, a kind of RPG with a strong element of general knowledge and trivia questions, which attracted a cult following. “People used to set their alarms and log on in the middle of the night to advance a level or communicate with others in the game, as there were a strict number of hours between log-ins set by the system.”

The BBS community was made up mostly of male science and engineering university students, some high school students, and a few memorable older people. “One very elderly man lived outside Auckland, spoke something like ten different languages, was interested in all kinds of things, and used the BBS for email and Usenet news. There were also a couple of women of my own generation,” said Mooney.

Dawn Scotting, ‘a retired housewife of Avondale,’ had run her own BBS since the mid-1980s. It was called Pandora’s Box and hosted on her trusty Atari XE computer with two external floppy disk drives and a 1200 baud modem. “I stuck to that computer like glue for years, even when all around me were now using PCs but of course I eventually had to give in.” These days her many interests, including quilting, book collecting, and cooking, have been transferred to the Web but her main on-line focus was genealogy. Scotting, who had about 100 regular subscribers, was allegedly the first woman sysop in New Zealand to run a BBS. Reader’s Digest included her in an article on how New Zealanders were adapting to home computing.

Bernadette Mooney believes those who ran BBS were mostly programming types. “Their main ambition was to have a faster mail system and a better database than anyone else. There were those who wanted a pulpit for their usually most eloquent opinions, others enjoyed the power that sysadmins have always had, but many were in it purely for the communication involved. It was a way of communicating with others, especially if unable for whatever reason to get out and about freely.”

There were not many occasions to meet and talk in person, and most members of the community had other interests. “They were, after all, a fairly bright and intelligent set of people, and as with any community, a pretty varied group of personalities with wide-ranging interests.” Moody was often involved in on-line chats with the young men who ran these systems and carried on long email conversations with others. In the mid-1980s she convened a meeting of BBS sysops. There were only about half a dozen in Auckland then, and after that various people used to drop in on a Sunday afternoon, which was nice.

“There were a few BBQs at which many of the attendees were BBS people, but nothing really organised. David Dix of kcbbs.gen.nz asked that I organised a couple of dinners which were quite well attended with guests from Wellington there, too.” Those who turned out might have included respected security specialist Peter Gutmann, a couple of the gamers who had used the Pinnacle BBS system and later went off to work for netscape and others who started up ISPs and telecommunications companies.

During her early experiences of Internet relay chat (IRC) Mooney could out-type the 300 baud limitations, having to wait for the screen refresh to catch up with her outpourings. However she found she spent too much idle time chatting away with unknown others. As real life intruded and study took a backseat, she worked from home, designing and maintaining databases and keeping mailing lists. In 1992 she had a heart attack which required bypass surgery and the BBS ran itself for a few years.

She closed her BBS in 1994 and only kept it going that long because people with different machines including BBC, Amiga, and Commodores, had nowhere else to connect. At the end it was running on a single phone line and had only a dozen or less users accessing email. “I waited until they all had somewhere to go before relinquishing the phone line.”

That year Mooney started work as a secretary at Auckland University, then moved to the IT helpdesk, and on to work with ‘the network guys,’ in what was still a mostly male dominated environment. She said the advent of the Internet made BBS redundant. “The ability to exchange email over a much greater geographic area was, well, magic. Some time in the mid-90s, I was working in Symonds Street in the city, and my daughter worked in the building next door. It seemed really strange that email from her building went to somewhere in the States before I received it, but the speed was amazing to me at that time.”

Fetch Fido, good dog!

Once the Internet came onto the horizon there was a growing desire for BBS users to access newsgroups and other resources. Richard Vowles had a couple of friends working at the DSIR who quietly shared their Internet access with him and he passed on those benefits. He was given a direct link into the DSIR system and in turn provided a gateway service to a hundred or so users on his own system and about 35 other BBS. “I was the first person in New Zealand to write software that provided a link for Fidonet people to cross the chasm into the Internet to access newsgroups.”

When the volume started to get out of control a fast modem was needed. “I ended up pulling data down on one line and running the BBS on the other line.” Vowles wrote text-based games so people could interact over their phone lines, including specific games for Bruce Simpson[4] who was running his own BBS. When David Dix came along he began providing direct access to email. “I was on a different level where I wrote my own access. His was more focused around Usenet and specifically an Internet approach. I was more interested in the BBS culture. I gave up when I heard Telecom were getting into the business,” said Vowles.

Operating from home he paid for the technology and any costs relating to the Internet feed from his own pocket. His parents covered the cost of the phone lines. At Auckland University he gained a double degree in Computer Science and Information Systems and ended up working part-time in the computer department. “One of the perks, because the pay was such crap money, was they allowed me to have a server next to my desk with a phone line attached. My home line dialled into that to get directly into that machine and I used it to connect directly to the Internet.”

He never turned his BBS into a commercial service, and by the time the market was heading that way he called it quits. In 2007 Vowles was running his own software development tools company and working as a product evangelist, running seminars, and teaching people how to use those tools, many of them Internet related. He finds computer or Internet role-playing games extremely antisocial.

“I hate them and rail against them at every opportunity.” Tabletop role-playing games, however, were a different story. He’d been involved with those since he was ten years old and finds them challenging and social.

John Vorstermans began exploring computing around 1984. He had a fascination with communications, particularly for sharing his early activism on green issues. His partner Paul Gillingwater was involved in the IT industry and had become aware of Usenet newsgroups while at Victoria University. Together they established Springboard, a free-access bulletin board aimed at environmental awareness, global warming, and related issues.

“There was an awareness about the changing climate, and scientists were talking about rising sea levels, possible ice ages and that sort of thing.” Vorstermans hosted Springboard at his Wellington home, where he had two networked 80286 computers and three dial-up modems with a connection into Fidonet, essentially a distributed conferencing system for hobbyists, similar to Usenet.

Usenet was one of the original Internet applications that allowed people to post messages that were copied to subscribers and available to read when they next dialled in. In the early stages you had to read everything through the bulleting board interface. Subscribers would typically spend half an hour to an hour on-line, with probably about 80 people viewing at a time through different access providers.

As the Internet gained prominence Vorstermans and Gillingwater were keen to evolve Springboard and get more people on-line. The initial motivation was to make Usenet available to the public. “Many people used to having access it at university lost that access when they left so we began to offer that service so people could read it on-line or download it to their computers.” Springboard quickly evolved into ISP Actrix; a play on words linking ‘action’ and ‘Unix,’ the operating system the Internet was first built on.

Aborted BBS springboard

Don Stokes set up his first bulletin board in 1985 as a student at Waikato University, using his first year comp.sci account. It was largely a social thing among first year “lab low-lifes,” according to Stokes. Once he got his own flat in Auckland the first thing that went on the phone line was a home-made 300 baud modem connected to a System 80 (a Tandy TRS-807 clone) with three floppy drives, to help a friend start a bulletin board. His role was largely code maintenance, “painful when done remotely at 300bps.”

In April 1986 Stokes began working with Datacom as a programmer. “There was huge demand for programmers, and just about anybody vaguely capable of stringing two thoughts together could get a job. Mostly, we dealt with accounting systems. I had a bit more of a technical bent than most others on staff, so got to deal with funny tape formats, dial-up and X.25 comms for terminals, and file transfer, remote data capture for the payroll system, Videotex, interactive voice response systems and other oddball stuff.”

By this time he had upgraded to a Commodore Amiga 1000, the desktop machine of the time, from the first commercial shipment into the country. “I spent far more money on it than I should have (around $5000).” From early 1987, now with his own modem, he began trawling the various BBS as well as having remote access to Datacom’s machines.

At Datacom he’d gained first-hand experience of the Post Office Pacnet service and other networking technologies used in the business community. In April 1988 in the aftermath of the stockmarket crash, he headed to Wellington to work at the Government Printing Office (GPO). Three weeks later the new minister of SOEs, Richard Prebble, announced it was to be sold as part of the government’s privatisation plans.

The GPO was a large user of DEC minicomputers, and the director of information services, Dr Ian Calhaem, who was heavily involved in the Digital Equipment Computer Users Society (DECUS), asked Stokes to set up a bulletin board for members. As a former DSIR member, he organised a dial-up connection through the DSIR Applied Mathematics Division. However the scheme never had organisational support, largely because of management changes and the fact that the computer bureau of the GPO moved away from Dr Calhaem’s control. “By the time DECUS gave up on Dr Calhaem’s scheme, we had news and mail running. It wasn’t costing us anything and we saw no reason to turn it off.”

The 2.4kbit/sec dial-up connection used a protocol called Phone Net. “I’d say it was the worst protocol I’d ever seen, with the possible exception of IBM 2780 over a half duplex international dial-up. It was a dreadfully inefficient but still enough to shift email and Usenet news,” said Stokes, who went on to help found Victoria University ISP NetLink.

Reaching for the stars

While many of the early bulletin board operators operated from pocket money and bare essentials for dial-up access, David Dix had the good fortune to be well placed within the IT industry, enabling him to dedicate resources to his hobbies and help others pursue theirs.

In the 1980s Dix worked for Paxus, reselling computer systems, and as a director of Phoenix Systems, which distributed the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) Unix software, and developed banking and Xenix-based multi-user accounting software. He was also director of the Auckland Observatory and ran the Auckland Observatory Computer Information System (AOCIS) bulletin board.

Located at the Observatory, AOCIS was based on a Sperry Micro IT 286 8MHz system with two phone lines and 1200 baud modems. It began operation in October 1986. The NZMC BBS, hosted on a Samsung 10MHz 286 AT-style computer with an 80Mb disk drive, was a development system with a files archive. It was located at the club chairman’s house in Mt Wellington, Auckland, with two phone lines and 1200 and 2400 baud modems. Both systems ran the SCO Xenix operating system.

“The observatory research group found out the Ritter Observatory in Toledo had this new thing called UUCP, where they shared information about astronomy, so we arranged telephone calls to pick up a feed of the Science Astral newsgroup, which in those days was one of only five available in the formative days of Newsnet news,” said Dix. Newsnet grew rapidly, with new forums added in rapid succession. In about 1989 Victoria University established a 9.6kbit/sec dial-up link into the University of Sydney, bringing in 212 newsgroups. Three weeks of news used about 60Mb on a hard disk.

Meanwhile an entrepreneurial group of students at Auckland University – Paul Kendall, Robert van Hartog, Tim Hammet, and Martin Keely – were also keen to access this feed and created their own company called Mercury, from an office in Epsom. They connected to Victoria University and offered newsfeeds to a range of BBS. With Mercury now acting as an intermediary, Dix and the team at the Auckland Observatory saved themselves the cost of long international phone calls.

At the same time the New Zealand Microcomputer Club (NZMC) established the Unix Users Group, which had its own host machine and BBS. As the systems grew in popularity and the administration load increased, it was decided to offer the hardware, phone lines, and other resources to an existing BBS, as long as users could have continued access.

Although several operators expressed interest they hadn’t followed through by November 1989. At that point David Dix decided to create Kappa Crucis8 Unix Bulletin Board System (KCBBS) by combining the AOCIS and NZMC systems on a 386, 25MHz PC with 108Mb disk, 8Mb RAM, and three 2400 baud modems, located in West Auckland. The operating system provided multi-user access.

Over a period of four months, software was developed to deliver all the services required on a SCO Xenix system. KCBBS was born on 1 April 1990 with the first multi-user dial-up system in Auckland. It used a bulletin board manager program, closely based on the Delphi BBS operated by Peter Belt. And it was free.

KCBBS expanded throughout 1990, with a hardware upgrade, more disc space, and extra modems. There were 489 users registered; 147 connected every day and 367 connected at least every three days. By June 1990 Mercury (mercury.gen.nz) was providing email access and 386 newsgroups with a full newsfeed, amounting to 9-12Mb of messages. With the new services and the addition of news and email readers, a $10 deposit was requested to help cover email bills. In November 1990 Fidonet was installed on KCBBS, with a connection made to the local Fidonet hub system for news and mail services. Fidonet consisted of 62 mostly local newsgroups. By December 1990 a 630Mb drive was added and the PC upgraded to a 33MHz 386DX with 16Mb of RAM.

In 1991 KCBBS’s free access bulletin board system featured as part of the NZMC stand at the Bits & Bytes Computer Show. Over the next year KCBBS acquired two 486 PCs including a dedicated news server, which was now handling 689 newsgroups with an average 30Mb to 40Mb of news each day. In January 1992 Auckland University took over the Usenet feed from the DSIR in Auckland, and it expanded to 1200 newsgroups with a daily volume of 40Mb. In August Mercury closed and the majority of its UUCP feed sites moved to KCBBS.

Around 1992 the FTP protocol began to change the way people accessed information. They could log in to different databases and archive sites and simply download information to their own computers, including graphics files, as binary code. As FTP become increasingly popular, so did the requirement for faster access and more capable machines that could handle the growing numbers on-line. Dix rapidly diversified, establishing a lucrative business helping other people set up BBS systems. As the Internet came more into focus he provided equipment and access to early Internet providers.

Gateway to bigger things

In 1988, on returning from Seoul where he covered the Olympics for the Auckland Star newspaper, Chris Miller started to unpack the load of boxes that a courier had delivered to his Devonport garage. Miller, who ran the Amstrad BBS funded by Amstrad Computers, considers himself one of the pioneers of Fidonet in New Zealand. He already had two 28.8kbit/sec modems and now Amstrad had supplied him with a couple of PCs, saying it would cover the costs of the phone line. “It was all done on a voluntary basis initially, just for fun,” he said.

Terry Bowden was running the IBM Bulletin Board, which became the mail gateway into the IBM Internet system. “We used the IBM tie lines between Auckland and Christchurch to pick up what was then called Echo Mail and Fido Mail. It was the equivalent of email but it used to take 24 hours to shift. My system became a gateway for other bulletin boards to call into to swap their mail.”

Over about 18 months the Amstrad BBS became one of the big mail hubs in Auckland, with about 50 other BBS connecting every night picking up their mail and swapping files through the direct IBM link. The feed from IBM came in from Sydney to Christchurch then on to Miller through the IBM BBS. “I remember toll calls were really expensive and the modems we were dealing with were very slow so I bought a Telebit Trailblazer which took advantage of Telecom’s multiplexing. I got sponsorship for a Sydney-to-Auckland link with another Trailblazer and started bringing in mail direct to Auckland.”

The Trailblazers were about $5000 each but merged two channels on the telephone line across the Tasman and sped up the connection considerably. “Telecom later caught on to what we were doing and started shutting it down but we got about a year’s use before that.” Then Amstrad started to reel from the cost of the lines and the traffic the BBS was generating and bailed out at that point sponsorship was taken up by the New Zealand Micro Computer Club and Miller’s system underwent a name change to NZMC Gateway (New Zealand Micro Computer Gateway). That’s where he came into contact with another NZMC club member, David Dix, who was running his own BBS and looking after the Observatory BBS. Another member, Selwyn Arrow, ran New Zealand Micro Maxi, a stand-alone BBS for club members.

“My system became the feed system; it was the first in the country to handle multiple lines under IBM’s OS/2 operating system running on a DOS box. We even beat IBM to the punch with OS/2. There was just a bit of shagging around but we finally got there. It was all pioneering stuff,” said Miller.

Looking for status

Systems administrator Craig Whitmore was dialling in to various bulletin boards to gain technical knowledge and play text-based chess and multiplayer games from the age of 14. He’d use his Commodore 64 machine and a 1200 baud modem to navigate around the scene and quickly became part of the emerging geek culture.

When he started checking out what was available in the late ’80s there were about 60 BBS services in the country. “You could send and receive electronic messages using Fidonet if you knew the address of someone either locally or internationally. After a series of hops from one BBS to the next it might get to its destination in a week. It was a horrible way of doing things but it worked,” said Whitmore.

For a small subscription fee users could go on-line any time they liked but he claimed the bulk of activity then was little different from today; downloading pirated games and software or ‘horrible quality’ porn. Downloading a game, which would fill a floppy disk, could take four to five hours. Whitmore went to Auckland University in 1991 and gained a bachelor of science in computing. Access to on-line services such as Newsnet and email was a little faster but the cost was still high, so student access was limited.

His first role as a systems administrator was with Jon Clarke, who founded Status BBS in his garage in Parnell purely as a hobby. Clarke was an IT consultant with Hong Kong Bank by day, leaving Whitmore to manage and maintain his two 386 PC and five-modem system, which served about 50 customers. Initially Status was the Atari Bulletin Board with a newsfeed taken from David Dix’s KCBBS. Eventually it had a direct connection to Auckland University, where it would dial up every hour or so to download email. “If you knew someone you got invited to log in. That’s how it was in those days. A couple of years later we got proper TCP/IP access and a real-time connection to the Internet and the number of customers grew quickly,” Whitmore said. That’s when he and Clarke moved premises, added equipment, brought on new staff, and changed the company name to the Internet Company of New Zealand (Iconz).

Pioneering ISPs

While bulletin boards were the building blocks of the early public access networks, once services matured they relied increasingly on university gateways to get them deeper into Internet territory. Much of the early technology and know-how for the next generation of services came from do-it-yourself bulletin board administrators, university computer centre or computer science departments and the scientific research community. The term ISP was unknown; the early players simply saw themselves as selling public access Internet.

ISP pioneers were a tight community. Most shared applications, fixes, and workarounds, and as they grew out of their old equipment they often on-sold computers, modems, modem servers, and cards to start up operations. From the late 1980s Internet access had been available to some businesses and bulletin boards through leased lines into university gateways. However the commercial evolution of public Internet with fee-paying subscribers accessing Usenet newsgroups and email didn’t really get underway until 1992. Michael Newbery of Victoria University kept ‘a short catechism’ on the Internet:

In 1993, when the Waikato international connection to the United States was beefed up from an overloaded undersea cable to Hawaii to a 64kbit/sec satellite connection to the NASA Ames Research Centre in California, the trickle of local and international data turned to a steady stream. Anyone who’d heard the information society was just around the corner wanted to know what all the fuss was about. According to Network Wizards, 1193 New Zealanders were connected to the Internet in 1991, and within two years there were between 10,000 and 15,000 – one of the fastest growth spurts in the world. Reports from Net Wizards and the Ministry of Commerce in 1994 showed continued growth. It was hard to get exact data, with different reports using different methodologies, but one thing was certain: it looked like a hockey stick on any graph.

Victoria, queen of the ISPs

Victoria University’s Computer Science Department[5] had begun making serious but unintentional inroads into the commercial market from 1986 when it first began to supply access to email and newsgroups which it acquired via dial-up connections to the United States and Australia.

A posting by Duncan McEwan[6] on the net.news.newsite newsgroup on 10 October 1986 explained that news articles via an ACSnet link to Melbourne and mail via UUCP in Calgary were exchanged daily.

The email and Usenet news was downloaded using the UUCP protocol and batch supplied to bulletin boards and other local sites. Once a charging regime was established it was at a flat rate for news and a kilobyte fee for email. From 1989 Victoria University had established its own full connection to the Internet backbone via the Waikato gateway and was allowing other agencies to connect to it through leased lines if they covered costs.

Because of its pioneering efforts in the field Victoria’s Computer Science Department was asked by the other universities to manage Usenet news on their behalf. To oversee that responsibility it formed the NewZnet Support group, which comprised Mark Davies, Bernd Gill, and Andy Linton. The group was, however, often challenged or criticised for its charging regime by those who believed NewZnet had some wider authority, and that resources should be more widely distributed than they were. This resulted in some terse postings on the NewZnet site. Andy Linton responded on 27 October 1992:

Another department at Victoria was being equally innovative. The Computing Services Centre (CSC), directed by Frank March, with core staff members Michael Newbery and Don Stokes, operated the off-campus permanent network links. They had taken quite literally a university policy of “fostering links with the community,” interpreting this to mean that if another agency was prepared to pay its own way to get Internet access, CSC would gladly connect them.

In early 1992 the Waikato 64kbit/sec international satellite link to California onto the Internet backbone was being paid for directly by NASA and the universities directly, rather than on a volume charged basis. Victoria itself was using an enormous amount of the bandwidth and along with it went the third-party traffic. “CSC, compared to the other university computer centres had very liberal policies about Internet use. Basically departments were expected to be reasonable, and while we did track usage, we didn’t feel that we had any business telling academic departments what did or didn’t constitute legitimate research use. Consequently VUW’s traffic levels were somewhat higher than the other universities,” recalled operations manager Don Stokes.

Meanwhile CSC’s own costs were spiralling out of control through burgeoning internal and external demands and the equipment being used wasn’t exactly leading edge. “Our PC routers, essentially large PCs surplus to the requirements of the student labs, were taking up a lot of space. They had become unreliable and there was a desire to improve the campus dial-up facility. A Cisco 516CS terminal server would achieve this, but it was immediately pointed out that we had no budget for this.” Stokes said a decision was made to hold a garage sale.

“We didn’t feel like waiting until the next year’s funding became available, so I pointed out the huge pile of junk, including PCs in the labs which had moved to using Macintosh computers.” The proceeds enabled CSC to purchase a Cisco 516CS terminal server and a few other essential items. “I think that was the first time we spent money explicitly for third-party traffic.” The increased capabilities saw its traffic creep up to one Gb a month, then double regularly on a monthly basis.[7]

In mid-1992 access to the international Internet link began to be charged on a per-megabyte basis. Tuia Society members – the universities – were charged and sites connected through Tuia members were included in their account, although there was no specific breakdown. Third-party buy much traffic just got lost in the noise. However CSC knew that traffic from the WCC, which had a 48kbit/sec link, was on an exponential curve. In November 1992 it exceeded that of the whole of Victoria University, representing thousands of dollars a month in fees.

The council’s CityNet bulletin board was offering anyone who had a modem, free access to public information through FTP, but the bulk of traffic was emails, software, and pictures from the wider Internet. CSC was now concerned about how Victoria’s own traffic was going to be paid for. Other third parties including Actrix were beginning to have a significant presence.

Of course acting as an undercover ISP wasn’t core business for the Computer Services Centre and presented a dilemma, said Stokes. “Our choices were to stop doing it, which didn’t strike me as very sensible; charge through the nose, or try and provide the service on a cost-recovery basis. We weren’t thinking especially commercially but certainly wanted to make it viable in the long term.”

In December 1992 the VUW Internetworking Group was formed and Stokes and his boss Michael Newbery came up with a new pricing model. “We would pass on the international charges at $2.50 and charge 20 cents a megabyte for New Zealand traffic. We didn’t care about local traffic because all it cost us was the trip across the 10Mbit/sec half duplex backbone at the university.

The connected sites had to provide their own router and data circuit to us and we would plug that into our router.” A router could cost $6000–$10,000; then there was the install fee, including adding new cards, which could be up to $4000. If clients wanted a 48kbit/sec DDS circuit that would cost $500 installation from Telecom and up to $3000 to install at Victoria. Then there was the $550 a month fee for the Telecom circuit and about $100–$150 a month access fee from Victoria, which was using Tuianet as its upstream backbone carrier.

By April 1993 the first quarterly accounts had been sent to seven commercial customers. Revenue for the first year in operation as a commercial entity topped $100,000 before expenses. By the end of 1994 Victoria had about 30 sites connected including the Ministry of Education, Wellington Polytech, a division of the Ministry of Commerce, bulletin board provider Actrix and a private connection for Clive Nicholson, a former DSIR employee who decided he couldn’t live without the Internet. Within two years there were 30 connections into the Internet backbone via Victoria including a 2Mbit/sec leased line into Parliament Buildings. A link was created to the Internal Affairs Department and the archives library using the diagram Don Stokes had drawn up five years earlier, when he was employed by Government Print.

At this stage the finance people at Victoria University were beginning to raise their eyebrows. Even though providing Internet access was a sideline, administrators were advising them to use their own revenues to fund different projects. “While it was useful having a revenue stream we were mostly spending that on further Internet development rather than funding other things for the university, so we began to talk to the university’s subsidiary company which dealt with external contracts.”

In 1994 Victoria installed Comcor Technology (CTL) Comet V-Fast 28kbit/sec modems[8] on its analogue leased line service, and CTL agreed to design and build a rack-mountable version. Network Dynamics routers were deployed at half the price per port of Cisco equipment. This was the beginning of a relationship with Network Dynamics.[9] The department now had 25 leased line customers. Its revenues had reached $250,000, and it had to advertise for an Internet administrator.[10]

The Victoria University finance administrators were awestruck at the burgeoning example of capitalism under their noses. Consequently a fully commercial ISP, NetLink, was established as a subsidiary of Victoria Link Ltd and launched in April 1995. NetLink took over the university’s UUCP dial-up business from Computer Sciences, along with the leased line business, the banks of modems and routers, email accounts and newsfeeds and even the Web services.[11]

Among the new services created at NetLink were ‘Web presence accounts,’ which included a domain name and web site with an email box. “Typically if you wanted a web site you had to own your own server but we figured out how ISPs could host multiple sites from a single server. With your domain and web site you got an email box, all for $100 a month,” said Stokes.

“We had to modify our Web server to recognise which IP address it was being contacted on, and to select each web site based on that. Modern Web servers provide a ‘host’ header which allows multiple web sites to use a single IP address, but back then hosting your own domain name without having to run your own server was new and cool.”

NetLink continued to innovate, and in 1996 expanded into Christchurch with leased line and dial-up services and to Dunedin also with a leased line offering. It sponsored the general election Web coverage and deployed a 500kbit/sec NetRadio wireless Internet service using Proxim equipment. This operated through three antennas on the Cotton Building providing coverage over most of the Wellington CBD.

There were a number of Internet pioneers among the crew at NetLink in those early days: Web specialist Nathan Torkington, Milton Ngan, a computer science graduate who helped set up the early systems, Jules Anderson, Mark Davies, Duncan McEwan, Bernd Gill, and others who moved across from Computer Sciences. They all enjoyed working at the leading edge of the Internet revolution where few had ventured before. “We weren’t terribly concerned about money. That only began to bother us a bit further down the track. In fact that was one of the main reasons I left,” recalls Don Stokes.

He claimed NetLink was established partly on the understanding that he and his fellow innovators would be looked after, based on all the development, coding, and time they had invested in the ISP. “It was a tacit understanding but it never really happened. Even when Rowland Woods, the founding managing director at Victoria Link, left, one of the directors encouraged us to ‘just keep riding that tiger.’ We thought we had the tiger by the tail when we went from half a dozen connections to over a thousand customers across the country. By the end of 1996 we were making half a million dollars in profit on a huge turnover but we never got any financial reward for what we put in.”

In 1997 NetRadio was deployed from roof of Hotel Grand Chancellor, the tallest building in Christchurch, as further evidence that innovation was still at the heart of the business. Then the former university ISP was spun out from under the university, with Colin Wallis as chief executive. The founding management team, Stokes and Wilson, resigned. The following year Wallis resigned and NetLink was sold to Telstra New Zealand for more than $25 million.

Actrix activates full access

Actrix was both a pioneer of the hobbyist bulletin board culture and, through its relationship with Victoria University’s Computer Science Department, was virtually pushed into the user-pays world. It agreed to take on some of the commercial customers Victoria was uncomfortable with, making it arguably the fifth[12] public ISP in the world.

“We were fairly much ahead of our time. We didn’t fear competition because there was huge demand and everyone worked together. It was very co-operative. No one was trying to get rich off the top; they were trying to make a living by providing good service and it worked well,” said Actrix co-founder John Vorstermans.

In November 1989 Vorstermans and business partner Paul Gillingwater escalated the Actrix BBS to Internet status when a 19.2kbit/sec leased line was connected from their Wellington offices to Victoria University. Once word got out that Actrix was now able to provide full Internet access there was steady demand. Most used Telnet[13] to access files, or PPP (point-to-point protocol) to send and receive email. Once you were logged in to the service provider you would use DOS commands to navigate your way around the green screen or the early Windows interface.

Actrix began offering dial-up access from about 1994 and soon had a couple of hundred users and six modems, charging around $15 per megabyte. “That was a huge amount of data in those days. We were only passing on what Victoria was charging us with a small margin to keep us going. It was still more of a hobby than anything else.” At the back end was a leading-edge 386 server with a 150Mb disk capacity. “I think the initial computer cost $25,000. We were pretty serious and could see that this was going to grow hugely once it caught on. We had no competition until David Dix in Auckland started KCBBS a couple of months later,” said Vorstermans. Over the next few years the Actrix team helped a number of ISPs set up servers and offered friendly advice, keen to see others discover this marvellous new resource.

The biggest cost was the $200 a month Actrix paid for a leased line into Victoria University and the charges levied by the university for each megabyte of data consumed. Victoria was eager to help the ISP grow and pass on business because it didn’t want to deal with the public. So the invitation was extended for Actrix to move onto campus, where it upgraded to Sun Microsystems computers and added lines and modems as required.

Vorstermans said it was a magical time because of the co-operation and support within the small Internet community, which was working to create a unique new business. Some businesses understood email technology but most were slow getting on-line. The Inland Revenue Department (IRD) was one of Actrix’s first serious customers making maximum use of email until it established its own connection. The Business Roundtable was another early customer. “I don’t know if they knew what they were getting into, but they could see that it had potential.”

Having an email address was still considered personal information; there were no directories, mailing lists, or contact details on business cards. You had to have a relationship with a person or company to be given their email contact details. Once the tools were available to access the Web, growth was unstoppable. “It went absolutely crazy and it became more difficult keeping up the demands of our subscribers. We were continually investing, and our costs slowly started coming down so we decreased our prices which made also a difference.”

Vorstermans enjoyed the idea that he was facilitating communication across cultures and other boundaries. While the fax was given credit for alerting the world to the horrendous reaction of the Chinese military to the Tiananmen Square protests, he believes the Internet had a greater impact. “That’s how the news got out almost instantly. Even though you couldn’t get pictures out over the Internet at that stage the world was horrified when the first emails came out describing what happened. The magic was the ease of communications and that was the big attraction in getting a lot of companies on line.”

In 1995 celebrating its sixth year as an ISP Actrix ran a supplement in the Evening Post to try to educate people about the communications revolution. Vorstermans was quoted in a reflective mood:

In May 2006 Actrix introduced a $5 monthly ‘community service’ which gave users free email through the non-profit PlaNet New Zealand network. PlaNet trust manager Peter Hall-Jones supported the initiative, saying it was necessary because there was a growing ‘information poor’ developing, who didn‘t have access to technology. “I think this is a genuine and gutsy attempt to address that. PlaNet and Actrix have no mark-up in this. We’ve flipped all the switches and are providing it at cost to ensure the wider community is involved in these technologies.”

Actrix was also getting involved in education, actively looking at ways to sponsor Internet use in schools and running several training courses. It had built a relationship with education provider CIT, which offered Internet courses that had been endorsed by the US Navy and NASA. “Things like this make the Internet so exciting. People are judged by the quality of what they put on the Internet, not who they are, who they know or where they are from. It wipes out elitism,” said operations manager Peter Muller. Director and technical manager Hal King said he had always liked the community focus of Actrix. “All the directors are very community focused and see the benefit for the wider community not just the elite. The goal isn’t to become rich. We want to see everyone benefit and at the same time try new technology.”

Actrix moved back into the Wellington CBD in May 1996 with a team of HTML editors, graphic designers, and technicians:

KC’s sunshine bandwidth

Although there was still a strong bulletin board community in the very early ’90s, there were only three or four competitors in the ISP business in Wellington, including Victoria University (NetLink), Actrix and Richard Naylor’s CityLink, which was established using Freenet software on behalf of the WCC. The bulk of activity at the time appeared to be happening in Auckland.

Kappa Crucis, the ambitious bulletin board system that named itself after a constellation in the Southern Cross and grew from a computer system at the Auckland Observatory, quickly became one of the most entrepreneurial Internet service providers in the country. KCBBS, KC, or KC Internet services as it later became known, pushed the boundaries. It served as a gateway for mail and news services, continually upgraded its equipment and its bandwidth with multiple paths out of the country, and supplied the latest equipment to start-up and existing ISPs. There were many outspoken individuals in the fledgling industry, plenty to gossip and rant about as the industry grew, and KC founder David Dix, was himself never short of an opinion and maintained and published a running record of the disputes and industry fallouts.

KCBBS hosted an exponentially growing news service and throughput of email, inevitably stepping into the commercial arena where higher levels of service were demanded. Beyond its BBS roots, KC shifted to subscription-only access from 1 October 1992, charging $45 for 12 months, with more than 150 users responding. They were allocated their own personal log-in IDs with separate home directories along with standard Unix news and email features. It was also possible for users to access compilers and other development tools. Several users developed offline readers specifically for dealing with Usenet news and local message areas on KC.

In July 1993 KC became Internet connected via a 48kbit/sec Metropolitan Digital Data Service (MDDS) to Auckland University’s Computer Centre. PC router boxes were used at each end with specially designed synchronous serial port cards in 286 PCs. However due to delays in IP number allocation and international routing being enabled at Waikato, it was not until the last week of August that complete IP services were available to KC users. IP access was charged at $20 per month, payable six months in advance, and 37 users signed up for that first term to February 1994.

From 1 October 1993 KC’s subscription was increased to $50 a year and user numbers grew to 167. As the world moved to the Windows interface on PCs and Web browsers came into common use Dix began sourcing higher-end equipment for hosting Web pages. “By the time graphics applications became mainstream I had already established 200-300 customers wanting to use early browsers and helped about six companies set up Web servers.”

However PCs didn’t really have the capability to drive a Unix system. One of the most secure operating systems available was Sun Microsystems’ Sun OS. Dix made contact with a firm that had a dozen or more Sun SLC machines left over after completing a large contract supplying Sun equipment to a New Zealand corporation.

These were the same powerful Sun Sparc One boxes being used by Internet providers offshore. Dix purchased a number of them to bolster his own capabilities and sold others off to struggling start-up ISPs. “I didn’t want them suffering their way through a Windows 95 system.”

Within a month Dix swapped out the 330Mb drive on his Sun SLC for a 1Gb drive. Alan Marston’s Auckland PlaNet BBS system was established with a direct connection to the KC Ethernet network in October 1993. This was a Linux-based 486DX33 system with two phone lines and 600Mb of disk space, giving PlaNet full IP access. It initially used one of the KC IP numbers until it obtained its own IPNetwork in March 1994. Dix had acquired a further Sun IPC system for himself in December 1993 and his old PCs were shut down and sold.

As word got around that he had access to high-end Sun machines, he on-sold about 20 units. Actrix took one, as did nine members of the new PlaNet co-operative network; two went to Jon Clarke for use at the Iconz and his Status BBS. ISPs setting up in Christchurch, Dunedin, and Nelson also placed orders. For those who were new to the game Dix was able to supply an ‘ISP in a box’ preconfigured with sufficient memory, operating system, and hard disk. Those who already knew what they were in for were simply glad to add this leading-edge equipment to their back-end systems.

A little later on, when US-based on-line auction site eBay launched, Dix went trawling and discovered that UltraSparc and other high-end Sun systems less than 18 months old were selling for a fraction of their new price. “That really boosted a few people along.” Dix began adding further value to his ISP business by offering his clients top-of-the-range Sun machines and Cisco routers and installing and configuring them for Internet access.

By this time he’d established offices in Queen Street and was employing up to four engineers. KC continued to upgrade its Sun systems and acquire faster disk drives, system software, development tools, and ISP programs for the Sun operating system. Through early 1994 he obtained various Sun peripherals, including CD-Rom drives, tape drives and various serial bus cards, and accelerated graphics cards.

In August 1994 a Sun SS1+ system was purchased and dial-up SLIP (serial line interface protocol) was enabled. Within weeks there were more than 50 users dialling in direct to the Internet via KC. The first IP connected ‘down feed’ site was a 9.6kbit/sec MDDS link for Transdata Corporation in September 1994. In October a DEC Brouter[14] replaced the PC router and a 48kbit/sec link metropolitan digital link opened to Auckland University. PPP was used to increase reliability. Usenet news now accounted for about 25 percent of the bandwidth. News averaged 220Mb per day with over 3200 newsgroups. The Waikato link was increased to 128kbit/sec.

In January 1995 two more IP sites installed MDDS links to the KC network, with clients taking a range of offerings from 9.6kbit/sec to 48kbit/sec. The news server disk was upgraded to 4.3Gb, improving the overall performance. The Usenet news partition size was increased to 2Gb. In the first week of May 1995 a new 64kbit/sec MDDS link was installed and a top of the range Cisco 4500 router was ordered. His client list now read like a who’s who of business, from dairy companies to publishers, ISPs, software developers, and even the Auckland City Council IT department.

A primary rate ISDN connection with ten 64kbit/sec channels was ordered from Telecom for installation in mid-August, and a Spider Mezza router with primary rate ISDN interface and triple X21 interface controller was ordered from Kaon Technologies. At the start of October 1995 a Cisco 4500M and a Cisco 4000M were ordered after a series of discussions with Telecom, which had agreed to install a stacked wide-band digital data circuit at both KCCS and Waikato. Kaon Technologies connected at 48kbit/sec over the MDDS in early October, and Intouch took over the KC end of the MMDS from Auckland University. The Cisco equipment arrived in December and wide-band negotiations with Telecom accelerated. The connection was in place on 20 December and customers were gradually migrated. Terabyte Interactive upgraded from 48kbit/sec to 64kbit/sec to allow it to provide an on-line Web server over the New Year period to monitor the Sydney-Hobart yacht race.

As 1996 dawned, life was good for KC, with new customer enquiries every day. Plans for the new stacked wide-band DDS services at Auckland, Hamilton, and Wellington looked promising and customers were committing to connections into all centres. The Net, an ISP in Hamilton, connected to KC’s router at Waikato via a Telecom 48kbit/sec MDDS link. Telecom, however, missed its 20 January deadline for installation, saying it would be in place within a couple of weeks.

Existing customers continued to upgrade their links as business grew. The newly formed PlaNet Hamilton connected to KC’s router at Waikato University. However by April it became obvious Telecom was not going to proceed with its promise to install stacked wide band for KC at Waikato. This resulted in four companies making other arrangements for their Internet connections. The most serious cost of this affair, apart from the loss of several potential customers, said Dix, was that expensive Cisco routers and controllers had been purchased to manage the service, resulting in a large financial loss for KC, which stumped growth, especially in the Hamilton area, for the rest of 1996.

Dix recalled just before Telecom’s Xtra ISP went live in May 1996 it had sent technical staff around to check out how several different ISPs were operating their businesses. “They gave the impression that Telecom was in the market to buy an ISP or look at ways of having closer relationships with existing providers. Iconz thought they were a candidate for Telecom buyout and even Alan Marston was fooled. They sent two guys to snoop around for half a day looking through his stuff. They were just learning how the different ISPs were doing stuff,” said Dix, who had always hedged his bets. He had access to two or three international suppliers for Internet bandwidth. “We would never align with just one, even though Telecom, Clear and Telstra all wanted us to sign up long-term contracts. Anyone who did that was crazy.”

In May 1996 KC continued moving existing DDS customers, and a dozen or so new customers to its primary rate Centrex ISDN service, which provided a low-cost option for Internet connection. The process was completed for KC to obtain an ISDN Centrex Basic Business Group (BBG) number at an overall cost of $130 per month for a 128kbit/sec link. A number of clients moved to basic rate connections during July, and there were eight more enquiries before the end of the month. Contracts for MDDS, ISDN, and DDS links continued to grow, along with demand for higher speed connections. The Cisco 4000M at Waikato was upgraded to a Cisco 4500M, and link compression was enabled over the 512kbit/sec line to KC in Auckland.

July saw The Net in Hamilton and Hamilton PlaNet move from a Telecom 48kbit/sec connection to a WaveLan radio connection to KCs router at Waikato University. The main KC computer in Auckland was upgraded to a Sun S4 110MHz model with 64Mb RAM, a 500Mb internal drive, a 1.4Gb external drive, and a Sun Ultra 1-140 replaced KC’s old news server.

Negotiations with Telstra began in August for an international link, which was finally installed in December. Meanwhile more smaller ISPs began linking through KC. Expansion of the various computer capabilities and network components continued to keep pace with growth, and in October a second primary rate ISDN (PRI) circuit was installed for KC. “This appeared to be the last Telecom had available as it was widely reported in the computer press that Telecom had no further ISDN resources available at the Mayoral Drive exchange.” After ongoing efforts to connect various servers and interfaces to the PRI it became clear it was not operational. Faults were reported to Telecom but problems continued and in the end the PRI was unusable, said Dix.

Peace Computers ordered a basic rate ISDN connection to KC’s Centrex ISDN but this was back ordered by Telecom. It wasn’t resolved until December when the price had gone up. “Peace managed to get Telecom to connect under their original scheme due to the long delay in provisioning the Basic Rate ISDN (BRI) service.” Dix had a meeting in Napier to look at setting up a connection with Auckland, largely because it became clear that Telecom’s charging schedule showed a greater number of ‘lower cost steps’ to Napier than any other North Island location. “With DDS connections from Gisborne to Wellington it was possible to provide a minimum cost connection for up to six ISPs, most of which already connected to KC’s router at Waikato.” Kapiti PlaNet moved from a 48kbit/sec connection into Wellington PlaNet and became the first ISP with a 64kbit/sec DDS connection to the new Napier hub. Wellington PlaNet also moved its 64kbit/sec DDS from KC’s router at Waikato to the new hub at Napier.

By late January 1997 the process of moving to Telstra New Zealand for international data services was well underway. In July 1998 a new Cisco 7507 router was ordered to replace those used to connect the dial-up users to Centrex ISDN and stacked wide-band DDS links. It would also connect the Megalink circuits to Telstra and Newmarket. KC continued on an aggressive upgrade path for all of its critical equipment with older modem servers and cards redeployed at other smaller ISPs.

Photographer Chris Miller first got involved with bulletin boards in the mid-1980s when he created an early mail gateway for a number of BBS including the NZMC, where he was a committee member. His interest in taking things a step further was piqued when he saw his friend David Dix had discovered how to bring in Fido Mail and Echo Mail directly from the United States via the Internet. Dix advised Miller to “get out of that DOS crap and into this real Unix stuff.” In April 1994, Miller, having completed a two and a half year photography contract helping create catalogues for The Warehouse, finally had time on his hands and began reconfiguring his system to explore what the Internet had to offer.

Dix had already made the transition from BBS to ISP with his Kapa Crucis (KC) system and offered to teach Miller how to work with Linux,[15] a variant of Unix. Because Alan Marston, the founder of the PlaNet co-operative, was co-hosting his equipment at Dix’s home with a direct link for Internet access, Dix suggested leveraging the PlaNet model so Miller became PlaNet North Shore but with Auckland-wide coverage. “We started with a couple of Sun boxes, a couple of PCs, a news server and it just grew and grew until we had to add more Sun boxes.”

However Millar began to get a growing number of calls directed at the PlaNet network. Confusion over the name resulted in him changing to become KiwiLink.

While Miller set up the back-end equipment and managed the Internet systems he kept working as a professional photographer, leaving the running of the ISP and Web hosting business to his wife Fiona. “I kept the servers going, upgraded everything and kept in touch with what was happening.” In many ways the Millers were way ahead of the game, particularly with their attempt to establish themselves as an e-commerce provider, hosting secure Web pages with transaction capability. However it was a little too early.

They set up New Zealand Products Link, with a focus on selling New Zealand goods offshore, and began approaching the banks to find a means of taking secure transactions on-line. “The banks ran a mile from us; they wouldn’t have anything to do with it. There were no secure keys around and everyone was scared of the Internet. In those days there wasn’t anything on the shelf so we asked our technician, Richard Harkner, to come up with a secure key. He found some code offshore and cobbled it all together from scratch. It cost us a bloody fortune. In the end the banks finally gave us a Visa solution we could use on-line but we just couldn’t get traction. There weren’t enough people buying and in the end it got too hard. We didn’t have deep enough pockets.”

In 1995, the focus shifted back to being an ISP, servicing dial-up customers, and providing secure Web hosting for businesses and other ISPs. There were few ISPs hosting Web pages at the time and that side of the business grew quickly, which was just as well because serious competition in the ISP market meant people were falling over themselves to get dial-up customers. KiwiLink’s niche, and in particular Miller’s specialist knowledge and ability to deliver a range of on-line tools for Web page publishing, was his saving grace.

“I think we would have been one of the first to have MySQL available. We were also early in hosting 56kbit/sec modems but Telecom’s lines were such crap and they couldn’t support them for the use of split pairs on the phone lines. It improved over time but Fiona got sick of people ringing in 24 hours a day with, ‘My Internet doesn’t work! It’s your fault…’ If they couldn’t get me at work they’d dig through the phone book and ring me at home. It got too much.” Miller leased the system to a third party for a time and finally sold Kiwilink in 2004.

“It’s interesting looking back at all the big guys who said they were going to squash us little guys; people like IBM and Voyager. So where are they now? They thought they could win over the market with deep pockets. They were very aggressive, making it clear they didn’t want us in the business.” Ironically Miller recalled hosting Web pages for Xtra when it first started. “They didn’t know how but they cottoned onto it pretty quickly.” He still runs the mail server and Internet technology for his own web site and for delivering images for professional photography, but he’s left the commodity Internet business to others.

Not plain sailing

Plain Communications (PCL) prides itself on being the oldest full ISP in Canterbury and alleges it was the first New Zealand ISP to offer commercial Web hosting. The company was founded in 1994 by Robert Hunt who said his was the third ISP in the country to offer PPP and SLIP access accounts to the Internet.

Hunt’s involvement came through flatting with Robert Biddle, who was completing his PhD in Computer Science at Canterbury University in 1985.[16] Biddle, who had first-hand experience with early Internet access through being an academic in Canada, inspired him with the knowledge that he could connect to the United States and get access to Usenet. Biddle introduced Hunt to an Amiga-based BBS called Equinox run by Jeff McCaughan. “I was an annoying user of Jeff’s, subscribing to Internet email. They would have to dial in to the University of Canterbury to get the email and sometimes they would even go in and download everything on to a disk. Later he started a company called Southern Internet, which was sold to Iconz.”

Originally the ability to set up a Unix-based system with decent bulletin-board services to enable people to dial in at 1200 or 2400 baud and get Usenet newsgroups, was as scarce as hens’ teeth, said Hunt. Actrix was lucky because of its interactions with Victoria but most others had to learn the hard way. Hunt’s first contribution to the on-line world was the Echo Link bulletin board, focused largely on assisting people within environmental organisations and the peace movement, to have affordable international communications. “I felt that was a good thing to do. It was largely a hobby, and we just upgraded to running what we believed was a jointly created node of the PlaNet network, that was looking to establish co-operation between smaller ISPs.” Hunt began operating as PlaNet Canterbury.

PCL was a holding company established by Hunt and his family, essentially a not-for-profit trust. “That’s how a lot of the early ISPs began, believing it was part of the ‘acceptable use policy’ to be non-commercial. We knew that was going to change but we didn’t quite know how it was going to pan out.” Planet Canterbury was running UUCP and providing copies of newsfeeds and email and ferrying this to and fro from people’s PCs. The DOS program, called Waffle BBS, was popular with early customers.

Then came the historic fallout between elements of the PlaNet network, and Hunt shifted his trading name from Planet Canterbury to CyberXpress. He continued to provide dial-up Internet and opened his commercial Web hosting business in mid-1995. One of his earliest customers was the Christchurch Press newspaper, managed and run by Webmaster Peter Wiggin, who later wrote the book Wired Kiwis. At its peak CyberXpress had 3500 dial-up customers, which eased back over the years as attention shifted to broadband. Even then Hunt was reluctant to move up to fast Internet. “We felt the things on offer from Telecom were so marginal that it was pretty much a losing scenario and we found relationships with Telecom quite difficult from the beginning.”


[1] http://www.theregister.co.uk/odds/bofh

[2] The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches, Witch Hammer, or the Hexenhammer) is the most infamous treatise on prosecuting witches to have come out of the Middle Ages in Europe. It is a comprehensive witch-hunter’s handbook first published in Germany between 1486 and 1487. The 14 editions that arise from the original spread throughout Europe and had a profound impact on witch trials on the Continent for about 200 years. This work is notorious for its vivid misogyny and equating witchcraft with heresy. The Malleus was originally prefaced by the main papal document on witchcraft issued by Pope Innocent VIII on December 5, 1484. It mentions Inquisitors James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer by name and directs them to combat witchcraft in northern Germany. Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malleus_Maleficarum

[3] Fidonet was founded as a non-commercial network in 1984 by Tom Jennings of San Francisco, California as a means of networking BBS that used his own Fido BBS software. Other BBS software over time was adapted to support his Fidonet protocols and the network became a popular means for hobbyist computer users to communicate. Fidonet has designated co-ordinators at each level to manage the administration of nodes and resolve disputes. Network co-ordinators are responsible for managing the individual nodes within their area. The Fidonet system officially referred only to transfer of netmail, private messages between BBS users. A netmail message would contain the name of the sender and recipient and their Fidonet addresses and the system would route the message from one system to the other until it reached the intended recipient. Netmail allowed for the ‘attachment’ of a single file to every message which led to the automated distribution of files between BBS including games. By far the most commonly-used piggyback protocol was Echomail, which enabled public discussions similar to Usenet newsgroups. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fidonet

[4] Simpson later founded Aardvark as a successful Web news content provider

[5] Essentially Prof John Hine, Mark Davies, Duncan McEwan, Bernd Gill, and Andy Linton

[6] Copied to Bernd Gill at the Victoria University Department of Computer Science

[7] http://www.wlug.org.nz/NetLink

[8] Rack-mounted modems made New Zealand company Comcor Technology

[9] A spin-off from the DSIR Industrial Research Labs which later became Allied Telesyn

[10] The position was taken up by Sid Jones, who moved on to work for TelstraClear when it purchased NetLink

[11] http://www.wlug.org.nz/NetLink

[12] http://www.actrix.co.nz (original profile document since removed)

[13] The Telnet (Teletype network) protocol provides a facility for remote log-ins to computers via the Internet, for terminal emulation. A telnet program running on a client can run a log-in session on a remote computer where commands can be read by a telnet server program. It was developed in 1969 and became one of the first Internet standards. A user may telnet remotely to check email or log in into account information and execute operating system commands on that remote computer. Telnet was considered a highly insecure means of accessing remote resources

[14] Combining the functionality of a bridge and a router

[15] An open source computer operating system which is essentially a free variant of Unix. The project to begin compiling together such a system began with the GNU Project and was ultimately pieced together when Fin Linus Torvalds wrote the kernel in 1991

[16] Biddle later became a lecturer in computer science at Victoria University