Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Online in Moosonee in the early 90s and before.

Today, everybody uses the internet. We take for granted that we have local high speed access to websites from all over the world.
Well, most of us do. There are still some remote communities where the internet is available only by very slow dial up connections or by satellite. I hope that will change very soon because having fast internet is, by definition, a good thing.
It was not always so. Public and local access to the internet arrived in Moosonee in 1996. The local telephone company, then called ONTEL (hence ONLINK) and now ONTERA starting providing dial up access that year. It would seem slow to someone used to using high speed but it was an amazing thing to have.
One of the best things about ONLINK was that it was a local number. Before it started up, anyone who wanted to use the internet had to either belong to a privileged group that had access via an 800 number or pay for long distance.
In the early 90s the internet was just transitioning to the World Wide Web. All kinds of text based systems were still in use, developed in the era of dial up where nobody could afford the bandwidth for fancy graphics.
Dial up access uses a modem connected to a telephone line.
The first time I ever saw a modem was in the mid or late 1970s. We got a portable terminal with a keyboard and a printer that used thermal paper. It had an acoustic coupler, something that you laid your phone into (remember all phones were identical in those days) and listened for the sounds of access. It worked at 300 bps or roughly 30 characters per second.
I think the first modem I bought for myself, around 1985, was a very impressive 1200 bps, a big improvement over the old 300 modems. I used it to connect with computer bulletin boards. These were basically computers that had one or more modems. You could dial one up and leave messages or files and pick up files from other people.There were literally millions of them at one time.
I also used Compuserve, a commercial dialup service and Quicklaw, a legal research service.
The big problems with these things was the cost. It came in two parts:  long distance bills and hourly charges. I think that I figured out that it cost $20 an hour to use Compuserve once you factored in the phone bills. Quicklaw was more like $150 an hour via an 800 number but fortunately, I was not paying for that myself. Still I found that I was paying out a couple hundred or more dollars a month to be online for ten to fifteen hours per month.
The early online services, while expensive, were great for keeping up to date on topics of interest. In my case these were mostly related to computers and amateur radio.
One thing I never thought of doing was setting up a bulletin board system (BBS) in Moosonee. That idea came from Colleen Kappel. She was a teacher at Moosonee Public School with whom I was teaching a computer course for teachers in 1993-94.
We first setup up a BBS using software called TinyHost that was just for the students in the course. This was well received even though not too many people had their own modems (or computers).

That BBS led to BayNet. This was open to anyone who wanted to call in and ran on a computer in Colleen's spare bedroom. It started off with one local number in Moosonee and eventually got a second line and a toll free number. The Mushkegowuk Council put up the money to pay for the computer and the telephone service. That was a major contribution -- the telephone bills were sometimes hundreds of dollars a month. But, it meant that people from the James Bay coastal communities had access. Other organizations also contributed to the service.
BayNet had messaging (people who used it could leave messages for each other), some pretty unimpressive games and forums or discussion areas. The forums included Computers, Cree Language, Education,General Interest, Internet, Language Arts, Legal Issues ("Ask a lawyer"), Music, Native Studies, Radio, Adult Literature, Children’s Literature, Nature, OPS Teachers Federation, Professional Development, School News, Special Education, Student News, Student Penpals, Swap Shop (Buy & Sell), Teacher and Videos. I suppose you could tell from that list that BayNet was operated by a teacher and a lawyer.
As the internet grew more popular, but still unavailable locally, we looked at ways of integrating it with BayNet. These would have been fairly expensive and probably quite limited. But, lots of BBS systems acted as portals to the internet for their users.
As soon as local access to the internet arrived, there was no point in running BayNet and it was shut down.

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