The rise in popularity of home PCs with modems in the U.S. coincided with the rise of America Online. Of course, many of us in America were online for years before this - using Compuserve, GEnie, and BBS's mostly. But for mainstream America first acquiring home computers in the early-1990s, AOL was basically the "killer app". Subsequently, this national "addiction" to AOL led to rapid growth in Internet as most Americans got their introduction to the Internet via AOL.

Given the uniquely American roots of AOL, my assumption is that it was not so dominant or important in Europe and Asia as it was here in the U.S. So what online services, if any, led the way in other regions' inhabitants deciding to get online in the first place, and eventually get on the Internet?

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    At some point the company changed its name from "America Online" to "AOL". This latter name was certainly used in the UK where AOL still has business today - so I conclude that for the UK, one equivalent of AOL was AOL
    – dave
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 15:56
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    @traal well, 15 years ago is already when AOL started its way down. I think we can narrow down the era in question for somewhere between 1980 and 1995.
    – Raffzahn
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 16:33
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    @traal AOL's boom time was well before the cellphone.
    – tofro
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 17:42
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    Believe it or not, I still know someone with an aol address here in Germany Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 22:24
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    My early 1990ies experience in Germany was everyone slightly interested in networking was doing their internet stuff at university. You could get an account one way or another. E.g. as a high school student, you could easily get a library ID at my local university, and having that one you could get a computer access ID. And then, it escalated quickly.
    – Janka
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 22:35

11 Answers 11


In the UK, CompuServe, CIX, and Demon Internet were the most influential early ISPs, but there were plenty more, such as Dircon, Pipex and Freeserve.

Freeserve built by far the largest customer base, and may be the nearest UK equivalent to AOL in the US. However, it was rather different in that it gave you access to the Internet in general, with no "walled garden."

AOL had customers, but was not terribly successful. The determination its UK marketing team had to make sure everyone got at least two AOL CDs every month was counter-productive, in that if you keep trying to force something that's free on the British, they'll assume it's worthless.

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    Demon internet was my first decent ISP, but I would argue that it was Freeserve that rally got much of the UK online. AOL was less successful because their 'walled garden' approach was outdated by the time it launched here, whereas the Freeserve CDs were much more useful, incorporating a full TCP/IP attack for Windows 3.1 and the Netscape Navigator suite. Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 20:10
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    Another top tip for marketing to Brits: don't put "America" in your product name. (though I write this as a Brit that emigrated to America, so...)
    – Tommy
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 22:55
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    @Tommy I had been receiving AOL CDs in the UK since early 1996 onwards and their marketing material always referred to them just as "AOL" - I had never seen them use their full name.
    – Dai
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 5:43
  • Think I used CompuServe and Freeserve at various points. The phrase "Pipex Dial" also comes to mind. Happy memories! Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 11:16
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    At least AOL stopped tables from getting circles from beer glasses and coffee cups.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 16:14

Given the uniquely American roots of AOL,

Why should AOL be anymore unique American than a C64 - selling quite well in all of Europe and some other parts.

my assumption is that it was not so dominant or important in Europe and Asia as it was here in the U.S.

It was. As by the amount of xxx-hours-free-internet-CDs attached to magazines and dropped in each mailbox.

So what online services, if any, led the way in other regions' inhabitants deciding to get online in the first place, and eventually get on the Internet?

Online systems for average users started in Europe around 1980. For example, GeoNet in Germany - which in some sense became the prototype for character-based online systems. In fact, the year 1980 was in Germany a serious backlash for BBS systems, as local calls where no longer free.

1984/85 is when the BBS scene became real vibrant, with several networks popping up. Like Mausnet or Zerberus - Fido as well. Especially Zerberus or Z-Net as it was called later on, played an important role, as it was the first system that allowed the use of a common infrastructure for vastly different content systems. Unlike Fido, where such systems had to setup their own network structure. Similar developments happened in other European countries.

In parallel (almost) each European countries telecom offered some online system based around the idea of using a TV set as terminal. Success varied greatly: where the UK PRESTEL barely attracted 100k users, did the German Bildschirmtext peak out at 1 Million users - about the time the service got merged into a new one with internet integration. The French Minitel eventually did beat them all with 15 million users - that's 25% of the total population, including babies and grannies. It even existed in parallel for several years after general availability of internet access.

Similar systems where available all over Europe:

  • Bildschirmtext in Germany and Austria
  • Ibertex in Spain
  • Minitel in France and Belgium
  • Teledata in Denmark,
  • Teleguide in Sweden
  • TeleSampo in Finland
  • Viditel in the Netherlands
  • Videotel in Italy
  • Videotex in Switzerland

And so on. Most systems followed either the French or German standard. For example the Austrian, Danish, Spanish and Swiss systems where German BTX.

Unlike often imagined, looking back they weren't confined to set-top boxes and TVs but also included (home-)computers early on. The BTX module by Commodore for the C64 maybe being the most prominent example - except it wasn't the only one. There were almost a dozen different interface solutions for the C64 alone. And many more for other machines, including Amiga, Atari ST or as well the PC. While in France databases, with the phone book as free example could be considered the door opener, Germany's killer application for BTX was online banking (*1). The eventual reason why the system was kept alive for almost 10 years after no longer accepting new customers - it was essential for many banks and their customers :)

These systems where the big players during the 1980s into 1990s. About the time when national telecoms started to offer internet access in the early 90s, AOL also entered the new liberalized markets and became a considerable player - alas not an overwhelming success as in the US. For one, the still well-performing Btx/Minitel systems were only slowly declining, while the internet, thanks to the WWW, became the choice for progressive users. The time of walled gardens was gone.

And the rest is history.

*1 - Keep in mind, we are talking early 1980s. That's pretty early. When was the first time you used online banking on your account?

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    AOL was most known for plastering the world with their free CDs (that nobody wanted...)
    – tofro
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 17:40
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    Don't be too hard on the OP's world view. In the mid 1990s we had a visit from a bright 20-something American, with a bachelor's degree, who had just joined an American company and was on his first business trip to the UK. He was absolutely astounded to discover that "uniquely American" products like McDonalds and Coca-Cola were available everywhere in a foreign country!
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 18:31
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    Why would people assume it was a primarily American company? Because the name of the company was America Online. Its entire marketing is the idea that it was the service that Americans turned to go online. If I saw a company titled "France online," I would assume it was primarily in France, too. It's not at all like McDonald's and Coca-Cola, where their entire marketing is about how they are beloved worldwide. As for C64: Commodores exist in the UK, Canada, Germany, Finland, and 16 other countries, if we include from other languages.
    – trlkly
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 23:25
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    @BrianH well, from the POV of my British notion of "history", nothing in America has any roots - it hasn't existed for long enough yet. But YMMV of course. (And note, we probably have different senses of humo(u)r also...)
    – alephzero
    Commented Nov 4, 2018 at 23:48
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    @BrianH - the situation of Minitel in France was very interesting, and really was an early forerunner of the modern Internet in many respects. There were a very wide variety of services, and the popularity of the system was such that if you travelled in France in the early-mid 90s you will have no doubt seen advertisements plastered absolutely everywhere for premium rate adult chat services running on the platform. None of the other videotext services were anything like as successful, and I suspect that stricter regulation of content may have been something to do with it.
    – Jules
    Commented Nov 5, 2018 at 0:03

In Australia we had AOL and their CD (and floppies) was everywhere, in your snail mail, shop counters, on covers of magazines, in newspapers, etc.

Prior to Win 95 being released Microsoft and Telstra owned the Bigpond network (ISP) and Microsoft and Channel 9 owned Ninemsn (content).

Telstra also had their own useless network in 1989 called the Discovery Network. I used it for one month. It was very BBS like. The entire network was about 100 pages in total.

Both Bigpond and AOL were private networks and tried to compete with the internet. Eventually they allowed portals from their networks onto the public internet.

Australia previous prime minister owned OZEmail, an early ISP. He made hundreds of millions selling it.

Also BHP-Billiton (Australia's largest company) maintained a mirror of all the worlds internet files at the Port Kembla Steel Works so Australians could quickly download. This was early to mid 90s.

  • I remember that despite the free CDs, AOL was very expensive (...yes, even more so than BigPond! More recently, about 10 years ago, I worked for a Telstra subsidiary and even with a staff discount of like 20% BigPond was STILL more expensive than EVERY OTHER ISP!)
    – Esco
    Commented Nov 7, 2018 at 4:00
  • Remembering this - the Microsoft/Telstra network was called OnAustralia at one point. The one thing it had going for it was that dialing into it was at local call rates from anywhere in Australia, which was nice if you lived in the country where all ISPs at that stage were at much more expensive STD call rates.
    – prunge
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 3:41

Can only speak for myself: I never wanted the limited, cut-down internet access provided by AOL or my national telco.

IBM offered the first "real", non-proprietary internet access as a package with OS/2 Warp that got me into the internet. You could use the IAK (Internet Access Kit) that was the killer app of Warp and buy a monthly service through IBM network services (The "IBM Global Network"). If you were lucky to have a PoP near you, it was actually one of the cheaper options to get full unlimited internet access.

Before that, I was using Fidonet internet gateways for mail.

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    Adding the country would make this answer more useful Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 19:04
  • I used IBM's Internet access on OS/2 as my first ISP as well. In my case, Canada. Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 10:44
  • @IgorSkochinsky That was Europe, France and Germany to be exact
    – tofro
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 13:22

In Italy one of the very first and most known ISP was Video On Line (VOL). I remember that in 1994 it opened an "Internet Point" in Cagliari, Sardinia where people could freely surf and discover the Web for 30 minutes. At the same time it offered dial-up subscription for those lucky folks with a modem at home.

Galactica and Mc-Link are even older ISPs, but they were born as BBS, before the birth and early stages of the World Wide Web.


In Brazil one of most famous ISPs was Universo Online. They, just like AOL, would send CDs with newspapers, magazines and when you bought a new computer.

We had a bunch of smaller ISPs but they eventually faded away (or they became broadband, either wireless or fiber, ISPs) when people stopped using dial-up.

AOL never caught on here.


In Russia in early 90-th "network-enabled" computers used dialup (telephone network).

FIDO was very popular because it was free. 1990 was the year when first BBSes were installed in Moscow and Novosibirsk. AFAIK, they were connected to other parts of network through Czechoslovakia. I think FrontDoor was the main software. FIDO used to be "must have" for any IT guy until 2000th.

At the same time, company named RelCom was created by Kurchatov Institute and soviet unix user group (There was a BSD derivation in USSR called DEMOS). In August 1990 they used dialup to connect to Helsinki University. After that, they decided to sell Internet access: NNTP (for news) and UUCP for email. Many people only had email at that time, it was much cheaper. This is how first ISP was created.

At the late 90th we had lots of small ISPs with dialup pools. They were connected to several "big" providers like TransTelekom (it was created by Russian Railways). Email migrated to SMTP (while still there were "email only" plans), many people used ftp, web and ICQ (this messanger was really popular). There were several russian websites: free emails (like http://mail.ru), newspapers, web-forums and chats (http://divan.ru, http://zerkalo.com to name few, use webarchive to look there)

There also was SprintNet network that used X.25 protocol suite. Several ISPs gave access to it, and there was free 15 minute access: after that, you had to redial. People spent a lot of time there because it was free. Here is russian article

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    It sounds like most users in Russia bypassed the big dial-up "walled gardens" like AOL, Genie, CompuServe, Prodigy... In the U.S. there was a 5-10 year period between BBS's (only used by "Techies") and wide-spread Internet usage, during which such walled dial-up services were quite popular.
    – Brian H
    Commented Jan 10, 2020 at 21:45
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    @BrianH exactly so. When dial-up Internet access started becoming popular, and more or less available to the average user up here, it already was full-fledged Internet with no walled gardens. I cannot even recall a single ISP in Russia or Ukraine offering walled garden plans like AOL or Prodigy did.
    – DmytroL
    Commented Jan 14, 2020 at 13:26

In Sweden, a early service provider was Algonet (started in 1994.) They provided modem access to users, SLIP (i believe) and UNIX shell accounts. One other service was email addresses and via pop and smtp the ability to access personal email. They had a number of customers who via $work had e-mail but also wanted to be able to from work send and receive e-mail as themself. Ericsson employees is one example.

Regarding Algonet: i found a mail from someone then the successor to Algonet closed down the old service. After having logged into the Sun servers they could elect to run slirp.

Utfors as an ISP is one exampel but so is the different student networks in student apartments in different cities (i'm from Skövde) there the university provided the link when new-built apartments also got real ethernet directly. The student network in Skövde got a free sun ss2 (from Sun) to be used as a gateway.

Utfors was from the beginning a student network in Uppsala...


While Poland had a reasonably popular dial-up service since 1996, and a lot of people have fond memories of dialing 0202122 (mostly at night, as the rates were lower), it wasn't really until about 2004 that home Internet became really ubiquitous.

The service was called Neostrada and provided a reasonably affordable ADSL service, with a simple to configure USB modem on lease and bundled with telephone service. While it had existed for about three years by then, the ability to test it for free for 30 days, the cheap 128kbps offering and reduction in prices of 256kbps and 512kbps ones was what really helped it take off with non-geeks.

And years after the US stopped grumbling about Eternal September, Poland was still up in arms about Neostrada kids - people, a lot of them children and teenagers, who flooded the forums and web chats without much concern for netiquette.


Germany had AOL until the late 90s. I have used their ADSL service, but it was pretty expensive (up to 300DM at the time if you've managed to spend all night playing AOE1 on zone.com or spent your nights on yahoo games.)


In the Netherlands the first ISP was the result of a club, the Hobby Computer Club (HCC) that started with BBS, then a Fido network, and in 1991 the UNIX-group, the C-group and the 68000-group, alle sub groups of HCC, started HCC!hobbynet, de facto the first consumer ISP in the Netherlands.

Many students may have an earlier memory, because in 1990 SURFnet came available. This was more or less an ISP for universities and other institutes for higher education.

But the “AOL” of the Netherlands, I would say, was XS4ALL, the second consumer ISP but the first that really found it’s way into the homes of many. It started in 1993 and was founded by a hacker group. It has remained in business long after most of the early ISP’s had disappeared, tho not independent. A few years ago the name was finally taken of the market by KPN, the Dutch telecom company that had bought XS4ALL a few years earlier.

Another ISP from the early days was DDS, De Digitale Stad in Dutch, or The Digital City. It was an initiative by a cultural organisation in Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, and a hackers magazine, the same circle that was the origin of XS4ALL. DDS not only provided internet access, but unlike XS4ALL that had a more anarchistic approach, DDS tried to build a digital community primarily of citizens of Amsterdam.

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