Wikipedia says:

The WebTV product was an adapter that allowed a television set to be connected to the Internet, primarily for web browsing and e-mail. The setup included a web browser, a corded or wireless (e.g., bluetooth or IRDA) keyboard and a connection, using a modem, ADSL, cable Internet access, or power line communication.


The WebTV set-top box had very limited processing and memory resources (just a 112 MHz MIPS CPU, 2 megabytes of RAM, 2 megabytes of ROM, 1 megabyte of Flash memory) and the device relied upon a connection through a 33.6 kbit/s dialup modem to connect to the WebTV Service, where powerful servers provide back-end support to the WebTV set-top boxes to support a full Web-browsing and email experience for the subscribers.

I'm too young to have experienced any of this, so I'm kind of confused. Was WebTV built on top of a third-party dial-up internet service? E.g. did a user need to subscribe to something like AOL as well as WebTV? Or was it an all-in-one package that was a sort of replacement for a dial-up internet service (so far as only being accessible through a TV browser)?

Also, apologies if this isn't "retro" enough for this stackexchange, I didn't know where else to ask.

1 Answer 1


The WebTV service launched over 20 years ago, so it's probably "retro" enough. :-)

WebTV had contracts with a network of IAPs (Internet Access Providers), such as Concentric Networks, UUNET Technologies, and PSINet. While the big carriers provided plenty of capacity for urban areas, dozens smaller IAPs were also used to get coverage in less populated zones.

When first powered on, the WebTV set-top box would connect to a toll-free number. This went to a bank of modems managed directly by WebTV. As part of the toll-free service, the modems would receive the box's phone number through ANI (Automatic Number Identification). The number was combined with phone rate data from CCMI to select local modems to call. These were known as POPs (Point of Presence).

Each box would ideally get two POPs to dial. If the first one failed, the box would try the second one on the next attempt. All successes and failures were logged and reported by the box when it eventually connected, which allowed WebTV to monitor network reliability despite not being in control of most of the POPs.

A few months after launch, WebTV added the "OpenISP" feature. This allowed you to specify a dial-up modem number of your choosing, so that you didn't have to pay for Internet service twice if you already had an ISP. You got a significant price break on the monthly subscription charge with OpenISP.

So yes, WebTV was usually sold as an all-in-one package, but it didn't have to be.

Update: an internal WebTV document, The Greater Scroll of Dialing Wisdom, has been posted online.

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