Recently, Colin “Hairy Eyeball” Brayton (also known as the Gringo Sambista) pointed me at a post by Marcelo Tas called “The First Networked Brazilian”. Unfortunately there are no permalinks on that blog, so here’s a link to the story with translations.

(in 1988…) Look here, Dr. Big-Shot, I say, the Internet is a giant network that’s going to link up all the computers in the world. Computers at home, computers in big companies … Everybody’s going to be able to swap messages instantaneously from any place in the world without leaving home or getting up from their desk! A long silence indicates that the businessman is not much taken by my fancy tale. Lunch ends, the desert arrives, followed by the coffee … As we’re leaving, I slink off without another word. As soon as he’s alone with his subordinate, the boss turns to my friend and says: The next time you waste my time on one of your dope-smoking artist pals, you’re fired!

The idea of a world-wide network really took some time to be understood, especially here in Brazil. Around the same time (1988), my ex-colleagues at UFMG (the Federal University of Minas Gerais) kindly offered me an Internet access account. At that time, the Internet was intended solely for academic and military purposes; Brazil had only two connections to the rest of the world – one at 9600 bps (bits per second!!) in Rio de Janeiro and a double-9600 bps connection in São Paulo. A year after that, the RNP (Rede Nacional de Pesquisa – National Research Network) was formed, with a 64 Kbps link.

I logged in over a single external phoneline that traversed the university’s archaic PBX system and entered a 2400 bps modem. A Unix prompt came up and I could access e-mail, FTP servers, Gopher and WAIS. As the line rarely remained stable for a long time, I would copy everything to a local file and read it later. On my side, I ran a terminal emulator called ZTerm on My Mac SE, together with a Supra modem. In 1990 I actually donated a 14400 modem to the university, but they gave it back a few weeks later, saying it was incompatible with the 1200/75 baud modems used by some other users…

Remember that all this was before the Web was invented. In the early nineties, in the USA, everything was somewhat fragmented. Even academic and research institutions were divided between Bitnet and the Internet. There were lots of BBSes, which were organizing themselves into networks like Fidonet, there were Usenet newsgroups, Apple already had its AppleLink network, and there even were some commercial networks like Byte Magazine‘s BIX, The Well, Compuserve and MCI. For me, the most rewarding were the e-mail lists. The two I found most interesting were the Computer Underground Digest and UNITE (User Interface to Everything). The latter list discussed what would be the preferred user interface for the Internet in the near future; one of the participants was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web.

I actually tried to sign up to be a Web beta-tester, as a version of the Mosaic browser had just come out for the Mac, but unfortunately my 2400 bps link was deemed insufficient. I started investigating options such as leasing a commercial Internet connection, or even set up my own Internet provider. Here are some tidbits from those years:

Me: “I want to set up a commercial Internet provider.”

University employee: “That’s absurd! The Internet is reserved for research institutions, we’ll never let companies use our infrastructure!”

(Embratel was the government’s telecomm monopoly)

Me: “I want to set up a commercial Internet provider.”

Embratel VP: “What’s an Internet?”

Me: “The world-wide computer network, it interconnects all other networks!”

Embratel VP: “Never heard of it, but I’ll investigate and have one of our people call you.”

(Some months later…)

Me: “I want an Internet connection.”

American ISP: “OK, that’ll be US$15000 for the installation of the parabolic antenna infrastructure and US$6500 per month for a 128 Kbps connection.”

Me: “Gulp!”

American ISP: “But, for Brazil, I hear a company called Embratel has a monopoly on that sort of thing!”

(Some more months later…)

Me: “I want an Internet connection.”

Embratel Salesman: “OK. I suggest a 2400 or 9600 link, the price will be X cents per packet. That’s 20% of what it costs to send a TELEX. Isn’t that revolutionary?”

Me: “A packet means how many Kbytes?”

Embratel Salesman: “What? It’s 64 bytes per packet!”

Me: “And if a user decides to download a larger file, say, 500 Kbytes? It’ll cost hundreds of dollars!”

Embratel Salesman: “Don’t worry, that will never happen!”

Around the end of 1993, RNP officially opened up the way for commercial providers in Brazil. Here I go again:

Me: “I want an Internet connection!”

Embratel Salesman: “OK. I suggest a 2400 or 9600 link, the price will be X cents per packet…”

Me: “Hey, let’s not repeat that again, I want a fixed-price 64 Kbps link!”

Embratel Salesman (after several phone calls): “OK, it seems to be a new service, that’ll be US$4000 per month. Next month we’ll install it for you.”

Me: “Gulp! OK. Where do I sign?”

Me: “I want 12 phone lines!”

Phone Company Salesman: “What model is your PABX?”

Me: “There’s no PABX, it’s for Internet access!”

Phone Company Salesman: “Never heard of it!”

It took some time, but I finally succeeded in establishing MetaLink, first as a BBS in 1993, then as an Internet access provider in 1994. We bought a dozen 14400 baud modems, a Cisco 2511 router and a Mac Quadra 900 as server. After N+1 problems with the phone lines, with the router connections (I had to import a connector and solder an adapter for the “Embratel Standard” modem), with overheating equipment and so forth, we were on the air. We started closing deals with companies in other states to export our provider model as a franchise. End of all problems? Did I become a dot-com-millionaire? Far from it. Hear this:

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “No. What’s that?”

Me: “You’ll be able to communicate with your clients, publish your catalog…”

Company Owner: “The clients should come to us, and our catalog is confidential! Bye!”

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “Hmm… well… maybe. How much does it cost?

Me: “X per month for a basic account. This doesn’t include your phone costs, of course.”

Company Owner: “What, that expensive and I still have to pay for a phone??? No way! Bye!”

Me (at a company): “Hello! I’m here to install your Internet connection.”

Company Owner: “OK. Install it in this computer here.” (takes me to a computer in the middle of the room.)

Me (looking around)”: “Hmm, I can’t see any phone around here…”

Company Owner“Phone? Whatever for? My employees have more important things to do!”

Me (looking at the computer): “To connect to the modem, of course… but this computer doesn’t even have one!”

Company Owner“And it won’t have either! I don’t want this Internet thing anymore! Bye!”

Me (on the phone): “Hello! Would you like to install the Internet at your company?”

Company Owner: “Yes!”

Me (wary): “You’ll need a phone line, a computer with a modem, and the phone line charges are not included. Do you still want it?”

Company Owner: “Of course, I’ve got all that. You can come and install it.”

At the company, I see an old-time Parks 1200/75 modem, the size of a VCR.

Me: “Look, this modem is obsolete. You’ll need at least a 14400 bps modem!”

Company Owner: “You’re nuts, I’ve been using this modem to communicate with my bank for 5 years, it works very well and I won’t change it! Bye!”

Client (on the phone): “Your Internet isn’t worth anything! The connection drops all the time and often doesn’t even start!”

Me: “Under what circumstances, for example?”

Client: “You want to see? Just look!!” (noises of a dialing modem)

Me: “Ah, but while someone’s on the phone the modem can’t communicate, that’s normal!”

Client: “That’s absurd! You want me to buy another phone line, is that it? You can cancel my subscription to this @#$%^!! Bye!”

Client (on the phone): “I deleted your software because it was taking up too much space, and now I can’t get onto the Internet anymore! That’s absurd!”

And so it goes… for some years it worked reasonably well, but user support started using up more and more resources and the operating costs weren’t falling as fast as I had thought they would. Finally, when large companies such as banks and newspapers started to build access providers with hundreds of lines, I redid my spreadsheets and deduced that there was no more money to be made with dial-up access providers. I sold my stake. MetaLink still went on for some years until it was absorbed into a larger company. But it was fun while it lasted…

(clique aqui para ler este artigo em português)