I was reading this Wikipedia article that says that the U.S. Government formed the "Internet Engineering Task Force" (IETF) in 1986. This seems to imply that at least the term "internet" was in use earlier than this.

However the first-ever "website" was, according to this Wikipedia article, created at CERN on year 1990.

So when was the modern kind of internet access (where you open a connection to the internet, launch a web browser, and type in a domain name) first available to the public in USA?

  • 19
    Even in these modern times, there are things you can do on the Internet that aren't web-based. The question of first public Internet access is an interesting one, but I'm pretty sure the answer will be "before the web", so you have two questions with different answers.
    – user5152
    Aug 5, 2017 at 18:29
  • 6
    Given a literal reading of your question, August of 1991, with the release of the first publicly-available web browser. The rest of the pieces were available to the public before that.
    – Mark
    Aug 5, 2017 at 19:39
  • 6
    I'm tempted to downvote, since internet public availability (netcom, et.al.) existed years before web browsers, and plenty of modern internet usage has little to do with http (e.g. lots of other tcp/ip & udp protocols are used by smartphones).
    – hotpaw2
    Aug 6, 2017 at 10:26
  • 7
    Repeat after me: The world wide web is not the internet. Now write that out 100 times.
    – JeremyP
    Aug 10, 2017 at 9:32
  • Purely anecdotally, I recall that conversations about "The Net" become common around 1994 or so, and home connections were common by about 1996 or so. These were almost all dial-up connections, super-slow by any recent standard, but they were enough to check your email and browse a few sites. Nov 9, 2018 at 11:36

4 Answers 4


The Internet was (and is) an evolving medium. It predated the web, with the first commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) beginning around 1989. Early features included e-mail, FTP (File Transfer Protocol for making files available to others), gopher (a hierarchal index of FTP sites and their contents), and newsgroups (open predecessor to commercial sites such as Facebook and Twitter).

There was a cross-pollination period between BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems, which started around 1978), private companies that offered their own computer offerings such as CompuServe and AOL, and the Internet.

The web itself could not exist without a browser. (Well, people have stretched other programs to include browser functionality, such as EMACS.) So the seminal date would be in 1990 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the web browser. He called his program WorldWideWeb. The first really popular browser was Mosaic, which came out in 1993 and developed by Marc Andreessen.

It is mostly incorrect to think of the Internet as an "American" thing. While the American government did start it off with Arpanet, that was restricted to a government/military/higher-education audience. Once ISPs started offering Internet access to anyone with a credit card, they didn't care what country you phoned in from. Plus ISPs opened up in a huge number of countries very quickly.

  • 1
    While you could call in to ISPs from anywhere, the providers themselves and the backbone connecting them (NSFnet) were only in the US for the first few years of the Internet. International phone calls were expensive, so there were probably very few non-US customers of those ISPs. As a result, it really was mostly US for a while.
    – Barmar
    Aug 5, 2017 at 23:40
  • 4
    One question about this answer and question is whether we consider university faculty and students to be part of "the public". Also, you forgot MUDs, MUCKs, MUSHes, (or maybe telnet to encompass those three and other things) and IRC as popular internet applications that predate HTTP. Aug 6, 2017 at 2:09
  • @ToddWilcox I read it that when the OP refers to "the public", he means "the general public". Adding to this interpretation is that he is seeking info on the "modern kind of internet access". // Yes, I forgot about telnet, IRC, and the various flavors of MUD. Thanks.
    – RichF
    Aug 6, 2017 at 4:28
  • Just to put some numbers to “fairly quickly”. In the USA, commercial ISPs were made possible in 1989. The first ISP in Canada was the Toronto FreeNet in 1993. The first ISP in the UK was Pipex in 1992 according to Wikipdia. By late 1993 connectivity across the Atlantic was good enough that I could use the “talk” program to hold a conversation between Oxford and Toronto. Sep 26, 2020 at 21:29

The World started in 1989 and claims to be the oldest commercial ISP.

Netcom is also pretty old. Wikipedia gives 1988 as the launch date which could make it older than The World.

These early ISPs were small companies, serving small geographic areas (determined by the size of the local calling area - with everything running over regular phone lines, you didn't want to connect long distance!) It took a few years longer for access to reach the majority of the country.

In the early period, you connected to the ISP with a terminal emulator, and did everything in the terminal. We had mail, group chat (IRC), one-on-one chat (talk), file sharing (FTP) with a search engine (archie), and the great time sink, USENET.

When the web started to overtake those other things in traffic volume, we didn't think "hooray, the modern Internet is finally here!" It was more like "What's with all the newbies who think the web is everything?"


To answer the main question ("When was internet access first available to public in USA?"), one candidate would be FidoNet, an early popular BBS (Bulletin Board System).

According to this history, FidoNet had working UUCP gateways as early as 1986:

Although primitive experiments had been conducted earlier, in 1986 gateways between FidoNet and the uucp network, and hence the Internet, became sufficiently reliable for production use.

UFGATE (UUCP-to-FidoNet Gateway) was the standard gateway for transferring mail and news.

Since FidoNet was an ad-hoc network of dial-up systems, with most nodes available to the public for free or at low cost, these UUCP gateways would have given users indirect access to the early Internet (assuming the UUCP host was connected to the Internet, which became more common as time went on).

This style of access, though, is not in the spirit of your second question ("where you open a connection to the internet, launch a web browser, and type in a domain name"). These gateways did not offer interactive or direct connections. FidoNet and UUCP were store-and-forward technologies, meaning the user's email might not be transferred for hours, or even days.

For more background, this page offers a good comparison of FidoNet and UUCP.

  • The problem is that the UUCP network wasn't the Internet, even if it was connected by it's own gateways to the Internet mail system.
    – user722
    Sep 11, 2020 at 7:00
  • 1
    I think my answer's pretty clear on that point. The access was indirect, but it was there.
    – Jim Nelson
    Sep 11, 2020 at 12:35
  • Then your answer clearly doesn't provide a valid answer to the question.
    – user722
    Sep 11, 2020 at 15:37

When I was in the US Army Security Agency in the early 1970s, engineers produced a version of email that allowed military installations to easily converse with one another without radio transmissions. The system used code, of course, but could be sent instantly (almost) ON existing phone lines or on the emerging network of communications satellites. The Internet was developed in 1983 by scientists from CalTech using fiber optic cables and IP. Originally, an IP was a series of numbers but as more and more companies signed on, the scientists found a way to eliminate numbers and use words like www.msn.com or www.cbssports.com. The user had to have a dialup modem that called phone numbers in sequence until it found a phone using a dialup modem. Or, if the dialup number was known, that number was typed in and routed thru the modem. The internet expanded exponentially when Microsoft introduced Windows 95, an operating system that could send and receive, search the internet, produce documents and operate CDs inserted. That was just 21 years ago and look where the internet is now. PS: The world's first 'COMPUTER' WAS built by US and British engineers in 1942 to break the German military's secret codes. Known as "ENIGMA," THE computer unlocked the Ultra secrets. /The computer was as big as a football field and had more than 10,000 cathode ray tubes and about 40 miles of cable. But it worked. Industry began using computers in the 1950s. Personal computers cam along in the late 1970s, but were very expensive and difficult to operate. IBM produced the world's first decent PC in 1984, but gave Microsoft the rights to the operating system, believing that the profits were in the computer hardware, not software. Somebody lost his job at IBM over that one.

  • 3
    /OT Um, define "decent PC", please. If you then compare and contrast what else was available at the time, and use your definition, you might reach a different conclusion. IMO, the only thing IBM offered that nobody else did was the IBM name. I do agree that they screwed up in their co-ownership deal of MSDOS/PCDOS, though. (Lordy, I wish IBM had gone with the 68000 processor. If they were stuck on having an 8-bit bus, they could have waited a couple months for the 68008.)
    – RichF
    Aug 5, 2017 at 22:17
  • 5
    Too many problems with this answer: 1 - question was about internet access and web sites and you list computer history; 2 - internet in 1983 may or may not have used fiber optic, but that not relevant to public connection (modem or T1 or other copper until recently); 3 - "called phone numbers in sequence..." - that's not internet access, it is breaking into computers (a la Wargames); 4 - CDs in Windows 95 is totally irrelevant; 6 - "difficult to operate" is subjective - plenty of easy software available before IBM PC; 7 - IBM PC was 1982, not 1984; I'd vote down but I don't have enough rep. Aug 6, 2017 at 2:05
  • Welcome to Retrocomputing Stack Exchange. Sorry that your answer was downvoted so much - I think you got your facts and terminology a bit mixed up though. For instance, the Bombe was used to crack the Enigma (a typewriter-sized electromechanical machine that in electrical terms was a glorified light switch) and was most definitely small enough to fit inside a room. It was also not a general purpose computer, as it could not be programmed to run anything except "break the Enigma". IBM created the first IBM-PC compatible, which was on-par with other machines of the time.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 6, 2017 at 16:38
  • "... in the early 1970s, engineers produced a version of email that allowed military installations to easily converse with one another without radio transmissions." This is very interesting. Whilst it doesn't answer the question (read the tour for more information) it would be really interesting if you could provide more information about it in Retrocomputing Chat once you have enough reputation.
    – wizzwizz4
    Aug 6, 2017 at 16:40
  • Most of the given milestones (e.g. "... developed internet in1983 by CalTech ..." are utterly wrong. I thought publications like "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins Of The Internet" by Katie Hafner shaded enough light on this even for folks at US Army Security Agency ... just wondering. Oct 1, 2017 at 20:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.