I know ARPANET wasn't available to the public until the '90s, but why didn't people just build modems (which most phone companies already had anyway), connect their phone's phone connector to it, dial up a "server" and connect to it that way?

The phone infrastructure already existed and there was a definite need to quickly transfer data (like typing in games in magazines).

Even without HTTP and HTML there's a lot of business that could be conducted that way.

I know American Phone companies didn't allow people to hook up Homebrew to their phones, but what was stopping people in Europe?

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    They did do just that. The servers were typically called BBSes.
    – Ghedipunk
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 16:47
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    Because 14.4kbps makes for a very terrible network backbone, even in those days.
    – Ghedipunk
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 17:03
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    Try communicating at 300 characters per second (that's about one megabyte per hour) with a "server operator" who only has one phone line, so you have to wait for another user to hang up before you can connect at all. Then wonder why that never became a mass market idea.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 17:06
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    And people did make their own modems, e.g. the CCC Datenklo (published 1985). Fidonet (sort of makeshift internet) started in 1984. People didn't do it before, because it was too expensive.
    – dirkt
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 17:17
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    @user2741831 What is the requirement for the net to be "the internet". We had plenty of email and ftp correspondence between universities in Europe in the 80'es. Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:17

9 Answers 9


Of course, people did use modems extensively for ad hoc networking at the time. You'd call up your friend and transfer a file. You'd call up the local BBS and chat and transfer files.

Your question seems to be more, why didn't this develop into a more formalized system of always-on network links. Well, who's going to pay for all those phone lines?

Something like the Internet or another packet-switched network is predicated on (mostly) always-up links. Instead of calling your friend directly, you'd call a local access point who have another link to another site who have a link to another site who has a local link to your friend. Great.

Well, now the local BBS needs at least one always-on 24/7 phone link to another site. More than one link if it's more than just an end-point and is actually routing backbone traffic. Many of the necessary links would be a long distance phone call. Consider that long distance rates could be a dollar a minute back then, and I think you have much of your answer.

Protocols like UUCP met halfway. Sites would store-and-forward and connect a few times a day, often at night with cheaper long-distance rates. But a UUCP feed was complicated to set up, could involve a ridiculous amount of data (Usenet was megabytes a day even by the mid-80s if you wanted access to the whole thing), and was mostly reserved for fairly powerful minicomputers.

By the late 1980s, it in fact wasn't uncommon for networks of BBSes to be linked that way, and your email might make it across the country or even the globe in seconds. But by the time large networks of BBSes like FidoNet started formalizing their forwarding connections, and sometimes even having connections up 24/7, the Internet came around and everyone jumped on that.

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    Absolutely right: people were making these abilities happen using software other than the TCP/IP protocols, but then TCP/IP started getting endorsed by governments (including universities) and giant media companies. Had TCP/IP not become popularized, the alternate efforts were growing and would have offered much of the same. I remember BBSs even interfacing with the Internet, so I could request a file be downloaded from the Internet to the BBS overnight, and then use my BBS-compatible software to have the BBS send me the file the next day.
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 5:52
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    Universites were probably the only non-military institutions who had both the need and the money to establish the necessary infrastructure in the late 80'es. Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 14:19
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    "Many of the necessary links would be a long distance phone call. Consider that long distance rates could be a dollar a minute back then, and I think you have much of your answer." A dollar a minute for a phone call? Why didn't they use VOIP? :) Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 16:31
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    We even automated file distribution over FidoNet, with file requests for one-time transfers and Ticks for multicast distribution. Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 19:18
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    See also CompuServe which was (commercially) timesharing computer usage in 1969. By 1979 this service had grown into the backend for Radio Shack's MicroNET (more or less what the OP is asking about, but with a star topology). The Source as an alternative from 1979 to 1989. Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 0:13

Much more than speed (typical ordinary user modems in the 1970s and even early 1980s were just 300 bps), the problem was long distance.

Many areas did not even have unlimited local calling at the time (Maryland fortunately did, or my leap into computers primarily via dialup to timeshared systems would have been significantly stunted). Long distance was quite expensive and billed per minute. The 9600 bps backhaul lines of Arpanet were few & far between and not an option for little BBS owners. The result was a lot of small (and some larger) local systems. It took a while for systems like Compuserve to connect it all together, providing local connections to a large nationwide system. Arguably the telegraph network of the 1800s was the "Victorian internet" and that was far less than 300bps. The challenge wasn't speed - it was getting an "always on" + "nationwide" (and eventually worldwide) system which, more than cheap computers and more than fast modems, needed cheap long-distance connections. Long distance is essentially free now (and unfortunately the scammers make tremendous use of that, at least for the next 18 months until the Robocall act passed by Congress & signed by the President is implemented), but that was not always the case.

As far as:

I know American Phone companies didn't allow people to hook up homebrew to their phones

While you could never (legally) hook up homebrew, after the Carterfone case it was legal to hook up a modem. The challenge was: who could you call at a reasonable price to make this pre-internet work?

  • I got my first modem in 1983 with the brand new blazing speed of 1200 BAUD. Most of the BBS's out there were still running at 300 though.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 22:10
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    "Many areas did not even have unlimited local calling at the time". I also grew up with unlimited local calling, and was gobsmacked to discover that some places in the US didn't have that.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 16:28
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    Ameritech, Southwestern Bell and Pac Bell never offered unlimited local calling if my memory serves. The other four baby bells did. Unlimited local calling wasn't nationwide until the mid to late 2000s. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 0:20
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    Here in the UK, phone calls were expensive at the time - I was just in my teens and there were different rates for local, regional and national calls. My dad was very nervous about me running up a huge bill, and hogging the phone line, so I kept my calls short and only dialled up the closest BBS's. I had a friend who ran up a big bill on his parent's phone and they took away his modem and sold it to recover some of the costs!
    – Paul M
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 15:55
  • @MichaelHampton, it really depended on the state. In Texas (SWB), we have always had unlimited local calling.
    – Ron Maupin
    Commented Jan 8, 2020 at 7:30

While the UUCP store-and-forward protocol was largely UNIX-based and thus mostly catering to institutions until UNIX-compatible OSes started to appear for the personal computers, the FidoNet protocol was used on computers running MS-DOS and CP/M since early 1980s. The network of FidoNet-capable computers was vast and spanned the globe, although it could take many days for a message to reach an overseas recipient. My personal computer was a FidoNet point for a short while in the early 1990s.

Surprisingly, FidoNet is being used to this day, according to the Wiki article.


In the 80s the UK had Prestel, an online videtex system delivered over phone lines and developed and operated by British Telecom. France had the similar Minitel system, which had more content and more advanced functionality.


I would like to add a shout-out for BITNET.

Starting in the mid-70's IBM had an internal network connecting the multinational company's many sites. It was called VNET.

Then some bright soul decided "Hey, our customers might like this too!" And so they did. Starting in 1981, universities started connecting to each other using their IBM machines and the same protocols. (Though, obviously, IBM did not let anybody connect to their internal network!)

The result was BITNET. And it was glorious. It spread to universities all over the world and convinced a generation of students that IBM was pretty neat. The advertising value must have been enormous.

Later other computer manufacturers made compatible network suites so their computers too could take part. But soon after that, the Internet out-competed everything else and the world became its present boring self.

I still miss some parts of BITNET, although I agree that taken as a whole, the Internet is way better.

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In "the 70s and 80s" I for one had no need of a makeshift internet, because I worked for DEC which had its own worldwide computer network - limited to DEC employees, sure, but everyone you'd want to talk to worked for DEC anyway.

Many people, including me, had an async terminal at home, with an acoustic coupler or modem; we'd dial in to our office (typically to a switch that could then get you connected to multiple computers) and be on the network that way.


I am not sure, whether I fully understood your question, but I guess fido net is more or less what you mean.

In Germany there was another network Maus Net that worked with the same principle but was much smaller.

People had their own BBS at home, connected to their phone line. If you wanted to send mail or files and you knew the phonenumber, you could simply connect to the other system by calling its modem. Of course if someone was on the phone or another caller was connected, the line was busy and you had to retry.

There was a routing protocol and multi-hop transfers as well. All done in hourly transfer windows, where two nodes that had been introduced to each other, exchanged in- and outgoing messages.

Enthusiasts collected money and started building nodes with mutiple phone lines. The one I was connected to had a 32 line PMX (i.e. 32 phonelines and of course 32 extensions).

To be fair, messages got lost and a mail could take a day - but it was the hottest shit on the planet :-)

Nerd paradise


Another perspective: Before anyone could make such a network, they would have to want one. The usefulness of the Internet is obvious to us now that we have one, but if you assume its usefulness was obvious before we had one, you are way off.

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    I had archie send me many a picture of pretty ladies. Also source code for many games and eventually entire OSes. Both the demand and the network was there. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 15:20

While all these makeshift networks of single or coupled BBSes of the 1980s may be more known, there were already many public available data networks. it may be noteworthy, that public data networks already existed before the internet.

In Germany for example a pulblic teletype network was available from 1938 until 2007 in addition to leased lines. From ca. 1980 until the late 1990s Datex-L and Datex-P could be used.

While Datex-L was based on switched circuit connection (Leitung) did Datex-P (Packet) used X.25 type packet based exchange. Hardware wise it was much similar to Canadas DATAPAC network. Thruout the country dial in points were available, so access was available at local call rate.

*1 - Remaining users are now served by a Swiss company.

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