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bluejay

How did dial-up internet work?

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I've thought this through, and it's occurred to me that for a website to be able to be directly accessed via phone, the computer would somehow have to know the phone number of "www.google.com" and have the modem dial it. This doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. How did dial-up internet actually work?

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For your question, it's the same as we do now with broadband. We just don't have to "dial in" or really "log in" anymore. The same underlying network technology is the same.

 

If you want a more detailed but understandable explanation, I'd be happy to expand on it! 

 

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These days we have modems that are always connected to the internet. Back then we had to dial in to connect our modems to the internet. But as gamemoose said, the underlying tech is mostly the same.

 

Before “dial in internet” there were dial in BBSs. Maybe someone here will explain. With BBSs you did have to know the number of the particular BBS you were connecting to. 

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BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) were like forums that you called with your modem. For the free/hobbyist ones, it was usually hosted by someone who shelled out the bucks for a second, dedicated phone line in their home that connected to the computer that was hosting the BBS. If it was hosted by a kid or teenager who couldn't afford a second phone line, there would be specific hours (late at night) when their parents would allow people to call in to the BBS. Only one user could be online at a time. So if you were trying to log in to one of your favorite BBSs, you'd keep dialing over and over until the last person logged off and you got that lucky moment when the line was free. Then you'd go through every thread and reply to whatever you wanted to, upload or download your files, and log off so the next person could log in. Long distance charges would apply, so many people just called up local BBSs. The upside was that it made it possible to have gatherings with the friends you made online since most users were local to you.

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Posted (edited)
2 hours ago, bluejay said:

I've thought this through, and it's occurred to me that for a website to be able to be directly accessed via phone, the computer would somehow have to know the phone number of "www.google.com" and have the modem dial it. This doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. How did dial-up internet actually work?

Young Jedi, back in the day, we had to dial up to be able to connect to a service that provide us TCP/IP, whereby we got IP packets into our computers.

 

From that point, the computer can use those IP packets to access various Internet applications and services.

 

The World Wide Web was just one of, and the most exciting and latest, of these services.

 

There were other services such as TELNET and EMAIL and FTP and GOPHER and various others, which all required a separate application (most were text based command line programs but if your computer had graphic capability with a GUI, some people wrote GUI front ends for these TCP/IP applications).

 

The above I described is the generic overview. Each computer implemented each of these things in its own way, with its own community of programmers, etc. but the common standard of TCP/IP was like ASCII standards for everyone.

 

To get the dial-up, you needed to have an Internet Service Provider, who had a bank of modems, and they would give you the phone numbers to call.

 

The Internet servers themselves did not care which number you dialed. They just also operated on the Internet.

 

The Internet Service Providers would get your computer's IP packets into the Internet, whereby they went to and fro the other servers.

 

I remember I opened up a whole bunch of "apps" when I connected to the Internet, one of which was a thing called the NCSA Mosaic Web Browser.

 

Later I used one from a company called Netscape.

 

Internet Service Providers all competed to offer faster and cheaper Internet (it used to be billed BY THE MINUTE in the early days).

 

Then one day someone said you can actually use your cable TV connection to get much faster Internet and they called it broadband.

 

Then lots of pornography started to appear online and hard disk manufacturers began to sell a lot of products.

 

END OF HISTORY LESSON

 

 

Edited by atarialoha
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To access the Internet in good ol' days, you needed an ISP with dial-up and preferably a local number.  You needed a modem and a computer with a TCP/IP stack either built-in or as a separate program.  I started on Windows 3.1 with Trumpet for school (though I did not own a PC and instead used my friend's) and on my Amiga with TermiteTCP.  I had obtained TermiteTCP from someone in IRC, which I accessed through a local BBS's Internet door.  (A BBS, or Bulletin Board System, is just as it sounds and well-defined in a previous post.)

 

The dialer or TCP software could access the ISP via SLIP or PPP.  The latter was the most easy to use and popular, and became the under-pinning for a number of Internet access methods later, including DSL (PPPoA and PPPoE protocols) and PPTP VPNs.  Some BBS programs could auto-detect a PPP dial-up connection and connect you to the Internet rather than the local BBS.

 

Your ISP provided, via the PPP connection negotiation, information to your TCP/IP stack, including your IP address, subnet (if needed,) and gateway, as well as your DNS configurations.  DNS was and is the magic to convert "www.google.com" to an address.  Though, when I started it was "www.yahoo.com" or "www.altavista.com".  Not to forget, we largely were not as dependent upon search engines as they make us now.  We would type in the address of the website we wanted -- we used to remember them like we used to remember phone numbers -- or we would go to the search engine and search there.  So many people, like futuristic AOL users, depend upon Google for everything (I cannot tell you how many times I give someone a web address and they read to me search results on the address.)

 

In the early days before later versions of Windows 95 and Windows NT, the browser was not part of the OS distribution, so your ISP would usually provide you with a CD or floppy disk with a browser or two on it and probably an email client.  I actually have a disc around here somewhere with a pre-release of Netscape Navigator on it, and I want to say I have a copy of Mosaic but I cannot confirm that memory.

 

While cleaning out my storage recently, I tossed a CD from my school's ISP which contained IE3.02, IE4, and Netscape (I think v2 or v3,) plus the Eudora mail client.  No love for Opera, though I liked it then and still do.

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17 minutes ago, atarialoha said:

Then lots of pornography started to appear online and hard disk manufacturers began to sell a lot of products.

Sex sells and drives industries :)

 

34 minutes ago, Zoyous said:

Then you'd go through every thread and reply to whatever you wanted to

Speaking of BBSes and copious amounts of messages, anyone else remember using QWK?  I had a fantastic QWK reader for the Commodore 128.  Yes, my friends, there once was a time when you did your communications off-line.

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I think my monthly dial-up plan was about $10 for 10 hours. They did have more expensive plans. This was from a local company. After a bit of time with ftp and gopher, I think my first http web browser was Mosaic. I wish I still had it, but I had a physical book that was basically full of Internet "links".

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Even before dial-up, there were shell accounts. I had access to e-mail, Usenet, FTP, etc. through the University Vax 8800 starting in about the early-1990s. 

 

I remember how very unstable some of the early (ca. 1997-98) ISPs were. I was a customer of two or three local firms in as many years. One ISP accidently deleted my website, and they did not have a backup! Fortunately, I did. Another firm went out of business after just a short time (less than a year).   

 

Once I discovered a bug in the then newest release of Winsock(?) for Windows 3.1 that would cause a disconnect every few minutes. I was literally standing in their office arguing with the ISP's engineer (the company consisted of like three people). His position was that the problem was with my system, when the phone rang and another customer had the very same issue! Shortly thereafter the problem was solved.

 

I moved cross-country in Summer 1998, and the ISP I then began using was so much better. Indeed, I am still a customer (despite several mergers and changes of name over the years). 

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1 hour ago, 5-11under said:

I think my monthly dial-up plan was about $10 for 10 hours. They did have more expensive plans. This was from a local company. After a bit of time with ftp and gopher, I think my first http web browser was Mosaic. I wish I still had it, but I had a physical book that was basically full of Internet "links".

Yes I think I know that one but can't recall the title offhand. It was a free text book and then later it got published as a paper book. I saw it in bookstores (you know, establishments that sold what were volumes of cut paper sheets, bounded together. They had two thicker sheets of paper called the front and back covers). Used to be you would go into one of these bookstores and physically select what you wanted, and bring it to a cashier (a human) and then exchange physical paper "currency." I used to hang out at these bookstores, browsing the huge collection of computer books (you could probably only afford to buy one or two, so you wanted to be super sure).

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3 minutes ago, jhd said:

Even before dial-up, there were shell accounts. I had access to e-mail, Usenet, FTP, etc. through the University Vax 8800 starting in about the early-1990s. 

 

I remember how very unstable some of the early (ca. 1997-98) ISPs were. I was a customer of two or three local firms in as many years. One ISP accidently deleted my website, and they did not have a backup! Fortunately, I did. Another firm went out of business after just a short time (less than a year).   

 

Once I discovered a bug in the then newest release of Winsock(?) for Windows 3.1 that would cause a disconnect every few minutes. I was literally standing in their office arguing with the ISP's engineer (the company consisted of like three people). His position was that the problem was with my system, when the phone rang and another customer had the very same issue! Shortly thereafter the problem was solved.

 

I moved cross-country in Summer 1998, and the ISP I then began using was so much better. Indeed, I am still a customer (despite several mergers and changes of name over the years). 

I discovered the magic of using the program called PINE to communicate with my friends from across the world! It was so amazing!!! I had at least TWO friends who had such Internet ability. One was a professor teaching computer science and the other was some other friend of a friend of a friend who just happened to know what I was talking about.

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Dial up is still used by many people in rural areas.  Your ISP may still offer local phone numbers for access (mine does).

If so, attach a modem to your PC, call the number and log in. Of course you need a landline too.

Then go to https://www.best-electronics-ca.com/  to see exactly what the internet was like 30 years ago.

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Before Arpanet started which led to the Internet as now known, there were online services and other dial-up providers. These gave banks of modems with local numbers that then passed the connection through a dedicated link to the central computers. CompuServe got bought by H&R Block because it was cheaper to use this form of connection than to have each local tax preparation office make a long distance call for updates. CompuServe then opened up to consumer use during the nights when business use was reduced. Similarly, GEnie was started so GE computers could have revenue during off hours. All of these and many BBSes opened up gateways to connect to other services through the nascent internet. The ISP took the concept but skipped the central mainframes to instead have the modem transfer to standard Ethernet router. 

 

Internet service needed higher speed modems to become workable. The overhead of HTTP would be very noticeable on 300 baud modems. The old online services were optimized for the slow transfer rates which hampered them because it was difficult to get the flexibility a mid-90s website could achieve. 

 

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52 minutes ago, Krebizfan said:

CompuServe then opened up to consumer use during the nights when business use was reduced.

 

When was this?  I was on Compuserve in the very early 80s and there were no restrictions of when I could log on.

Business hours were something like $12 per hour at 300 baud vs $6 during evenings and weekends.  They also didn't go by your local timezone, which I found out the hard way when my first bill arrived.

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Consumer use for Compuserve started in 1979. Off-peak hours were cheaper. I forget exactly when the free starter kits emerged in an attempt to attract the more casual user as opposed the big clients that used the service during standard business hours. 

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3 hours ago, atarialoha said:

I discovered the magic of using the program called PINE to communicate with my friends from across the world! It was so amazing!!! I had at least TWO friends who had such Internet ability. One was a professor teaching computer science and the other was some other friend of a friend of a friend who just happened to know what I was talking about.

Heh, PINE was the first e-mail client I used...and I still use it today! It has a few newer features and it's actually called ALPINE, but it's the same program.

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Yes, it opened to the public in '79, but I've never heard of there being any restrictions for non business users.

While not free, the Vidtex software and manual for my Model III was very cheap...like $20 bucks.

 

So what SIGs did you visit?  Play any of the games like Black Dragon?

 

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Posted (edited)

Just to be clear for the OP, "on-line services" such as CompuServe, Delphi, GEnie, The Source, and even AOL, were not strictly Internet services. They were just huge servers with their own banks of modems. Sort of like mega versions of private BBSs. Eventually these On-line Services interconnected with the REAL Internet, such that your CompuServe account ID (in the format of something like "7222,71111") got the @compuserve.net added to the end, whereby you could then exchange email with others on the Internet.

Edited by atarialoha
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Posted (edited)
1 hour ago, Turbo-Torch said:

 

When was this?  I was on Compuserve in the very early 80s and there were no restrictions of when I could log on.

Business hours were something like $12 per hour at 300 baud vs $6 during evenings and weekends.  They also didn't go by your local timezone, which I found out the hard way when my first bill arrived.

I think many of us were shocked by the CompuServe bill one time or another... well, my parents were shocked! LOL. I bought most of my stuff using money from part-time jobs after school but the CompuServe bill, well, they needed a credit card to open an account, so.... LOL

Edited by atarialoha
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10 hours ago, bluejay said:

How did dial-up internet actually work?

Like this..

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Maybe look at it this way. You automatically and instantly have an internet when you have 2 or more computers that are able to connect to each other by whatever means is available. Of course a 2-computer internet is quite tiny compared to 100's of millions.

 

Your internet gets bigger when you have more systems. The ISP isn't mysterious, it's a building full of physical interfaces, routers and servers acting as switches and hosts and storage. It is also a collection of physical interfaces like 5G, StarLink, Standard LTE, or more traditional methods like cablemodem and land line, DSL..

 

And when you have lots of ISPs, well, you have lots of internet.

 

The dial-up connection is merely a method of connecting to an ISP - which then looks at your dial-up modem signals and pulls out the WWW address and other ASCII characters you type or what your browser uses to communicate with another computer. Pulls them out, looks to see where they need to go, then sends them via satellite, fiber, microwave, or even subspace, to the next ISP.

 

In the old BBS days, your "ISP" may have been nothing more than your breaker box and closet full of mechanical physical relays in the central office which was usually maybe 5 or so miles away. The phone number was all that was needed to flip those relays and get a connection to the BBS'es modem.

 

You can read much more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dial-up_Internet_access

 

Edited by Keatah
add wiki reference
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If I understood correctly, the internet service provider would encode a website using a file transfer protocol into data packets that a computer can receive through a modem, and some software on the computer would decode the data packets sent by the ISP and display them on the web browser?

 

I did some googling about all these networking protocols and was bombarded with a 7 layer abomination of what seemed like a million different protocols that could be used for all sorts of... anything. I think it might be a while until I understand truly how these work.

 

Anyhoo, many thanks to everyone for your responses.

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5 minutes ago, bluejay said:

If I understood correctly, the internet service provider would encode a website using a file transfer protocol into data packets that a computer can receive through a modem, and some software on the computer would decode the data packets sent by the ISP and display them on the web browser?

Yup. There's layers upon layers and tunnels within tunnels. And the software IS the web browser, along with some APIs and drivers and TCP/IP stacks. The TCP/IP would ride inside your modem's communication protocol with the other modem. And your web browser and your info you type would ride in TCP/IP.

 

There's so much more. Maybe pickup a book or two on the topic.

 

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@bluejay  If you really want an understanding of top to bottom, there are plenty of video tutorials available.

 

Your basic approach is the TCP/IP layer model: the dial-up is your link; the IP protocols which underpin TCP/IP are your Internet layer; TCP, UDP, and ICMP (primarily) make up your transport layer; the various application protocols like http for web, smtp for email, &c. make up your application layer.

 

In relation to the OSI 7-layer representation.  For dial-up, the modem and phone line comprise your physical layer, the PPP connection is your data link layer, your TCP/IP stack would essentially be the network, transport, and session layers (ignoring, for a second, that UDP is sessionless.)  Then you have your various Internet protocols like http/https (which carry web pages,) ftp, smtp, &c., which will be your presentation and application layers.

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