1995 started out like a normal year, but very quickly changed into a bit of a Roller Coaster.
As per Part 1 of this story my Internet project was well underway on a theoretical level. Plans had been made, books read and hardware prepared.
My First Time
This all changed on Friday January 13th when our, in fact Monaco’s, very first Internet connection started to work. The leased line to Marseilles had been installed and tested the previous week. Then Transpac had been in and out for the last few days setting up the Internet router. By Friday the 13th (!) it was all good to go – we were live on the Internet. Wow, this was mega.
So what did my internet connection look like? Physically it was an industrial router ready to mount in a 19 inch computer rack. Logically it was my own domain name “monaco.mc” and a complete Class C subnet of 253 usable public IP addresses (after giving up one for the router itself).
The first step was to light up my DNS servers so I had name resolution. As you might know every item on the Internet has a unique IP number similar to a phone number. For instance my new IP numbers were in the range 126.96.36.199 to 188.8.131.52. In the really olden days computers had to have an internal phone book file (/etc/hosts) to match IP numbers with names and departments. As the Internet grew this became unmanageable so in 1983 a standard was developed for a dynamic phone book call the Domain Name System (DNS). My Linux based DNS servers used a standard program called named which hooked into this Internet wide phone book system.
After a few pings to confirm connectivity my next step was to try the web browser which I had installed on a Windows 3.1 PC. The browser of choice, possibly the only browser at the time was Netscape 0.9 from a company called Mosaic Communications Corporation. This was another piece of free software that I probably first acquired from a magazine or book CD. Amazingly it worked first time. Very quickly I was trying web addresses from my books and magazines. This was truly amazing.
Remember at that time there was no Google (founded in 1998) or in fact any serious Internet searching so the only way to find a website was to see the address in a book or magazine and type it in. Strangely enough the next week (18th January) the first serious Internet directory, Yahoo.com, was created and quickly became the standard way to find Internet addresses.
After spending my weekend surfing the Internet from home it was time to start real work. As I was confident I could make it all work I signed up for an advert on Riviera Radio, our local radio station, “Internet access via a local phone call”. Around my normal work I continued building and testing the final parts which were the incoming and outgoing mail servers. Not so easy when you don’t know anyone with an Internet email address to test!
Advertising on our local radio station was a bit of a leap as, for our budget, it was quite expensive and in the past had had a less than impressive response. This time it was different. Literally within a day of the advert going out we were receiving phone calls. I guess previously our products had not been as exciting as this. The big questions were “Was it real?”, “Did it work?”, “Was it available now?”, “How much does it cost?”, “How do I sign up?”.
Straight away I knew that two incoming modems were not going to go very far so before we had even opened I ordered 2 more dial-in phone lines. I could see a scalability problem coming here as each PC only had two COM ports so could only support 2 modems/lines. Luckily for the moment I could just keep adding PC’s from my pile of spares. Around that time new faster 14.4 Kb (or 0.0144 Mega bits per second) modems became available so I bought 10 (4 for the dial-in lines, 1 for home and 5 to try sell to clients).
Work then switched from technical issues to paperwork, specifically prices and contracts. I decided early on that the classical method of billing clients by their data usage was going to be a nightmare which I did not need. To avoid this I decided to bill people a fixed amount each month. This would give them an email address on @monaco.mc and unlimited time online. They would of course have to pay for the phone call to our office. I did try to explain to OMT right at the start that they were going to make a ton of money from people calling in to us but they didn’t really see it. Penny set the price at 600 French Francs (about 100 Euro) per month.
Monaco Goes Live
Within a few days I had a contract form ready and callers were told they could come by the shop and sign up immediately – and they did ! Officially Public Internet went live in Monaco on January 23rd 1995.
The first people to sign up were a combination of hobbyists, technical guys, future competitors and business people. About half of them could configure their own connection, while the rest needed one of our engineers to go onsite and set them up. Often they also bought a 14.4kb modem from us. Eventually I made a fully documented “Welcome Diskette” which had the dial-up networking, a web browser and an email client on it. This helped reduce the support overhead as more and more clients signed up.
These subscribers could be termed the “low hanging fruit”. They knew what Internet was, or at least had heard of it so they were keen to sign up. Most of the people in our area had no idea what it was so I would have to start educating. Our next radio advert included an invitation to our free twice-a-week evening Internet introduction seminars.
We had a small computer shop from which we normally sold computer games, cables, cartridges etc. Our real, money making, business was in fact onsite work in offices and selling hardware to companies so the shop, with offices downstairs, was not usually very busy. As a marketing ploy I decided to install all the Internet hardware on a shelf in the shop. I didn’t want it to be hidden away in a computer room, I wanted it all on show like something out of Star Trek.
See the Amazing Internet !
For my seminars I collected all the chairs in the office and set them in front of the Internet hardware along with a big screen and a white board I could draw on. At first I was very nervous as public speaking is not usually my thing, but once I started there was no stopping me. I really was possessed with important information I had to tell each seminar. Not least because I was paying out lots of money and needed some income.
As you can imagine once I had explained what the Internet was and how it works the biggest questions were all about pricing. People had a lot of trouble understanding why there was no cost for the distance data traveled or the time they spent online. This was a mega shift in their understanding of global communications as everyone was used to long distance calls costing lots of money per minute.
Some of my favorite seminar demos were the CIA Factbook website (which had been online since October 1994) and a webcam on top of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco (seems the webcam sadly no longer exists). This live webcam was always a real jaw dropper. In May the the financial news site ft.com came online and was quickly added to the favorites.
The Internet business rapidly built up. Soon our engineers were spending a considerable amount of time onsite installing modems and setting up email accounts. Modem sales went through the roof and I am sure OMT must have been amazed at the number of people ordering extra phone lines all of a sudden. Still there were no competitors anywhere in the Southern part of France so our catchment area was enormous.
As more clients signed up it became clear that more contractual options were needed. On the email front I decided clients not in Monaco should not have @monaco.mc emails so I created @rivieramail.com, for French clients and @gf-net.com for clients who did not want to be geolocated. On the access side it was a little more complicated. Our local university asked for special student rates. This we did, but on more than one occasion we found non students taking advantage. We also discovered tourists, or more accurately workers on temporary relocation. They did not need an email address, just an Internet access for a few days/weeks. As an offshoot to this we setup several PC’s in our shop which visitors could use, Monaco’s first Cyber Cafe. We quickly became known by all the hotel concierges whom we soon realised were sending lots of their clients to us.
The Back Room Speaks Out
Part of my normal job was analysing businesses, including my own, and building software solutions to make life easier. As soon as it was clear that Internet Access could actually be a business I wrote a system to track all the users, emails, passwords that we were setting up. For many years my database language of choice had been Clipper which was actually an extended and compilable version of the Dbase II language that my early professional systems had been based on. In 1994 I had moved to the now Microsoft owned FoxPro 2.6. These were all DOS style languages, ie not MS Windows, which simply used the screen as 25 lines of 80 characters of text, no mouse required! For my Inet system I took a leap forward into the wonderful world of proper MS Windows using a pre release version of the new Microsoft Visual FoxPro 3.0 language. (This MS Windows language was fully released in June of 1995 and swiftly became my new language of choice for client projects.)
When I had started working on the various contract options the Finance Department, Penny my wife, had put the corporate foot down – no way was she going to do the Internet billing in our usual invoice now, pay later style. There were going to be hundreds or maybe thousands of monthly invoices which would be impossible to manage by one person.
We asked our bank for some help, they also had no idea what Internet was so first some education was required. Eventually they got it and recommended a monthly standing order type system which we could manage by computer. In those days “by computer” meant by hand delivered diskette. Normally these could only be setup for big utility companies like electricity and telephones, but for us they made an exception. The bank provided us with several PDF specification documents for the data format which seemed to expect us to have an IBM AS400 mini computer as the utility companies used. I had my wits and Visual FoxPro.
I extended my user database to include all bank information and created a totally integrated system to manage my Internet business for access control, website hosting and automatic billing. Each month it created a diskette which went to the bank to control the transfers and an export file which passed all the financial details to our in house accounting system which I had written many years ago in Clipper. The Finance Department was really happy, especially when the number of monthly invoices went into the thousands.
As my Internet evolved I evolved my program. For instance when I switched to Livingston dial-in access controllers I modified my program to create the live Radius User files which directly controlled the modem logins.
My First Website
During the first month online I was spending a lot of time looking at websites. It rapidly became clear I should have one although there didn’t seem to be any benefit financially. As my aim was to connect clients to the Internet having a website to advertise this seemed a little pointless, as new clients were not on the Internet and so could not see it!
I have always been a keen photographer so my first website on www.monaco.mc was a collection of my photographs from around the area. The following PDF shows the server logs from going live on January 30th till 2 weeks into February. (Looks like I might have turned it off on the 31st as there are no accesses.). The first accesses were from the computer company Digital Equipment Corp possibly the local Sophia Antipolis office. As we move into February you can see accesses from Dubai, Finland, Japan, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy. . . . . Over 3,000 pages and photos sent out in the first 2 weeks. Wow the world is coming to my door !ww950301
By now Yahoo was fully operational so I registered my site in their index. Around that time I contacted, via email, the owners of Yahoo and discussed the possibility of a yahoo.mc for local companies. They were not so interested so I made my own Monaco Business Directory. I started to catalogue the businesses in Monaco and put their details in my directory. I thought the entries could be free, maybe charge for them one day or charge for photos and descriptions etc once everything took off. I gave my current clients top highlighted entries as one does.
Later in the year I was given a video tape with a clip from a Sky News UK TV program which had featured www.monaco.mc and explained how the Principality was already very advanced presenting itself in this new medium.
In those days Monaco held an annual Foire de Monaco to showcase local businesses and Government initiatives. It was a big deal with a couple of hundred stands and all the Government departments presenting. We had attended a few times over the years both as an IT Support company and as a Computer Games retailer. It was good exposure although seriously expensive. So, as you can imagine, I was bowled over when they called us out of the blue and offered a prime stand for free if we would bring “our Internet” with us. I happily accepted especially when they offered to cover the phone charges for us to connect to the office.
So for a week we decamped to our, largest ever, stand at the Foire de Monaco right next to the main entrance. We took my white board, a few computers, our “big” screen, our collection of chairs and plenty of modems to sell. For the entire week I was running continuous Internet demonstrations and training courses. Our, now famous, live view from the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco became the talk of the show with visitors from other stands continuously popping by to see the current weather in California. I vividly remember presenting to groups of teachers and school children about how the Internet was going to change their lives. Our local newspaper, the Nice Matin, even did a big article about us including photos of me preaching to the children and the view from the Hyatt. As expected we sold loads of email addresses.
Content is King
Following the show life became even more hectic. The Monaco Centre de Presse contacted me for an Internet access and offered up loads of official Monaco photographs for my www.monaco.mc website. I also had a glossy magazine called Monaco Actualite call me up with offers of photos and stories about Monaco. When the Formula 1 Grand Prix, another of my interests, came around I wrote about it for my website and published loads of photos. As luck would have it one of my IT clients was also a volunteer marshal in the pit lane and he was more than happy for me to show his photos on my site.
The day before the Grand Prix I had a call from an F1 journalist who had heard about my Grand Prix web pages. He came to the shop and I gave him the full tour and demo. He was totally blown away when I showed him the live web server log files. From these you could watch the pages and photos being viewed from all around the world in real time. He said it was a real shame he had not heard about me the day before. It turned out that during the previous day he had been chatting with Bernie Ecclestone during some down time. He told me that Bernie would have been really interested in my demo. Unfortunately everyone was too busy now so the moment had gone.
All page calls to our web server are logged so it is very easy to see what is popular and what is not. My pages for the Grand Prix were so massively popular that I thought this might be something to investigate further. There were no official F1 sites on the Internet, but there were plenty of amateur ones run by students and based on University web servers. This meant that during the holidays they were not being updated. Two weeks after the Monaco Grand Prix was the Canadian Grand Prix during which traffic to my www.monaco.mc/f1 website peaked again. People were coming to me for F1 information. For the next Grand Prix, in France on July 2nd I followed it on TV and wrote about it on my website – even more traffic. So just for fun I contacted all the circuits for the rest of the year and they sent me maps, photos and brochures for their races. I put it all on my website and added in race reports as they happened.
Eventually I created the GALE FORCE F1 website which ended up being a 7 year project, serving over 1 million pages per month, involving several F1 teams, various websites, Getty Images, the Financial Times, the FIA and being personally banned by Bernie Ecclestone. I will cover this in another story.
Below is an extract from an article published in the May 1995 edition of Monaco Actualite.
As an engineer I thought I had picked up my business sense quite well. I was totally familiar with buying items then selling them for more thus making a profit. I was also comfortable with selling my time to write software or fix computers. It seems that the Internet Access business was a whole new way to make money.
In the world of Internet Access people paid money every month just to use my system. I didn’t actually have to do anything! Well almost, in practice I had to build a reliable system and make sure it ran 24/24. The emails and accesses eventually just sold themselves. Bizarrely the really interesting work turned out to be websites which, it seemed, everyone wanted to see, but no one wanted to pay for.
By now I was very aware that I had become the sole publisher of everything about Monaco on the Internet. My intent to provide Internet access for local people had accidentally spawned a way for me to show the world what Monaco was. Not something I was expecting when I started my search for email not even one year ago. I really wanted some direction as there was clearly an interest so I called the government, specifically the Minister of State, for an appointment. Wearing my best suit and tie and carrying my very official looking briefcase I was lead though ornate corridors with crystal chandeliers to the office of the lady who was the Minister’s deputy. I sat next to an amazing view over the Port of Monaco and made my case. After some brief personal history I explained what the Internet was and how people were using it. I didn’t bother with the how-it-works bit.
I could quickly tell that she was having a hard time showing any interest. I think at first she thought I was trying to sell her something. It started to click when I explained I was working with the Monaco Centre de Presse to present information about Monaco to the world. She became very interested when I mentioned that the CIA Factbook website already had a section about Monaco. I was asked to print out this information and bring it to our next meeting. I left her with a printed report which I had prepared earlier that covered most of what I had explained.
I duly printed out the CIA Monaco page and presented it at our next meeting. She explained she had discussed it at meetings with the Prince, the Minister of State and the Centre de Presse. The consensus was that the Internet was an American thing which they did not need to be concerned about. They were happy for me to continue with publications about Monaco with the Centre de Presse. I was relieved I had not been shot down and could continue with my new hobby.
Early on I decided that I could not afford to ever give anyone a busy signal when they called in. I didn’t mind so much about the Internet speed as that of course could be blamed on other parts of the world. Busy signals were definitely to be avoided though. As the number of clients increased this became more of a worry so I installed 4 more dial-in lines. By now I had found a neat little COM port card which had 6 ports on it and I could plug multiple cards in each of my Linux Dial-In PC’s. This solved the problem of having one PC for every two modems.
As we moved further into 1995 new 28.8kb (or 0.0288 Mega bits per second) modems became available so I bought, what felt like, a whole palette full. I upgraded all the modems on our now 12 public and one internal phone lines and sold the rest to clients. Around this time I was also able to upgrade our Internet line from 19.2kb to 64kb (or 0.064 Mega bits per second).
In order to increase take up and reduce the chance of competition I reduced all our access and email prices.
More Official Content
In the middle of 1995 the web publishing business took a leap forward when the Monaco Government Tourist Office of New York (MGTONY) contacted me for a website. They were very keen to be developed and hosted in Monaco rather than just becoming another .com and so www.monaco.mc/usa was born. Working with MGTONY was a whole different level to working with the Centre de Presse. As you would expect the CdP was a source of raw information and photos. The MGTONY was a fully functioning publication titan with brochures, event calendars and hotel special offers covering everything an American tourist would want to know. While my engineers were still busy installing modems and fixing stuff I was busy converting all the MGTONY publications into web pages. Wow did I learn a lot about HTML.
Another of my big website clients became the Monaco Television Festival. Like MGTONY they had a wealth of printed material which had to be webpaged and hosted on www.monaco.mc. Instead of tourist information this was, of course, all about TV shows that were being celebrated at their annual festival in Monaco.
It was not all up and up though. My Monaco Business Directory was a hard sell, even for free and my new free web page sub site I called “Espace Monaco” failed to find any interest. Too far ahead of the curve.
Amazingly enough the Internet Archive.org site has many, all be it, incomplete copies of www.monaco.mc in its database. Unfortunately the first one is from January 1997 but it does give a general flavour of the site. Click here to see www.monaco.mc cira January 1997.
With both Access and Publishing now seriously taking off more bandwidth was needed. In September of 1995 I upgraded our Internet to 128kbaud (or 0.128 Mega bits per second). This was not at all a planned progression. My policy was that as soon as Transpac could supply a quicker line I bought it. This was a hefty 8,000FF (1,200 Euro) installation fee and 18,500FF (3,000 Euro) per month, but by now the business was flying so no pain was felt.
As we came up to Christmas I felt the business needed a sensible present. I have always been interested in 3D computer animations and the name of Silicon Graphics (SGI) always stood out as the super computers of the day. When I found out they were building special web servers I knew what I needed. Well possibly “needed” is a bit strong, but my web business was rapidly developing and at the time was based on several 66MHz Pentium PC’s running Linux and Apache. The thought of a 200MHz RISC based SGI server was just too much to bear. I bought a Challenge S “Web Force” R4400SC 200MHz with 64MB RAM which was massive and fast in those days. This cost 125,887 French Frances (about 20,000 Euro) and took centre stage on my Internet shelf in the shop. (Server Spec PDF) All my websites proudly showed “Powered by Silicon Graphics” as was the thing in those days. Apart from its power its mere presence and the reference actually brought in new clients.
The Internet Access Point
Below is a photo of my “Internet Access Point” at the end of 1995. On the far left at the top is the thin blue Transpac modem on top of the backbone router, to the right is a mass of power blocks for the modems. Below these are the two access PC’s, 12 external modems and 1 internal. In the center is my famous “Big Screen”, above are the DNS and Mail servers. The flat blue box on top is my super expensive Silicon Graphics server with a CDROM and tape drive sitting on it. Out of sight on the floor is the UPS for battery backup power and a second DNS server. As you can see it all just sits on a shelf next to the computer games we were selling.
That was 1995, my Internet year 1. All the above is of course on top of my normal work designing and writing software along with the general IT support. It’s no surprise our children say they never saw me. . . .