Does the AOL Internet Model Need a Facelift?

The mentality and service offerings of today’s large, incumbent Internet service providers (ISPs) are a hold-over from the earliest days of the internet.

The mentality and service offerings of the largest, incumbent internet service providers (ISPs) are a hold-over from the earliest days of the internet. In those early days, ISPs sat right in the middle of our internet experience—connecting users to the internet, delivering packaged content, and providing a friendly interface to the mass of other content. Over the last four decades, the internet and the way we use it has evolved—but the behavior of the big ISPs remains largely unchanged. Consumers today want greater control over the way we interact with content and services, and that means it’s time to rethink how—and through which mechanisms—we access the internet.

The Early Internet

When the internet first became available to the average consumer in the late 1970s, connecting felt like an insurmountable technical barrier. This technology was new and unfathomable. It was in this context that the early ISPs—dial-up access providers (CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy)—became essential. Before the advent of the web browser, a coherent online experience had to be curated out of a variety of highly technical software programs, communication protocols, and content repositories. In other words, the early internet had no presentation layer, and those early ISPs filled that gap.

ISPs connected consumers to the internet, supplied tools to organize and interact with the vast numbers of information sources and other people, and provided customer support to help subscribers get online and make sense of the experience. To the average consumer on the early internet, the ISP was a branded portal for their entire online experience. To the average consumer,  ISPs were the internet.

By the late 1980s, more self-serve interactions with the internet were becoming possible (with TCP protocol for data transmission and IP protocol for host addressing). The ISP became a transport provider rather than a proxy. As former proxies, ISPs received all user traffic and forwarded it on to its destination. Now as transport providers, the ISPs owned the pipes but no longer sat between the user and the server.

The Web Browser

The first dialup TCP/IP-based ISP, The World, launched in 1989. Then, in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and its companion transmission protocol, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which leveraged TCP/IP. This development meant that any information, structured or unstructured, could be represented and transmitted with HTML and HTTP. Combined with a client program—the literally named WorldWideWeb browser—Berners-Lee revolutionized information retrieval, rendering, and linking. By creating a standards-based presentation layer for the internet, Berners-Lee revolutionized consumer engagement with the internet.

Streamlined internet connectivity was now possible, and the browser quickly found its way to the personal computer desktop via NCSA Mosaic and Netscape. ISPs no longer needed to curate the entire internet experience—web browsers enabled direct interaction with content providers. Email, however, was not accounted for; to secure a personalized email address on the early internet, users needed to register an internet domain and run an email server, or acquire an email address on someone else’s server. The former was beyond the capabilities and interest of the average consumer, so ISPs continued to fill this gap for their customers.

The "Modern" Internet

Since this dialup internet service operated over standard telephone lines, the barrier to entry was low and numerous new ISPs entered the market. These new ISPs were transport providers and not  proxies, but most still provided email addresses and customer service; the ISP was still the customer support interface to the internet. The old proxied services of the proto-web became less technically necessary as the 1990s unfolded, but they continued to retain or even gain market share through aggressive marketing techniques.

From another angle, since cable and telephone companies already owned wireline connectivity to our homes and businesses, these companies too began to sell internet services. And, by necessity, they adopted the same models of connectivity plus applications such as email plus customer service.

In the mid to late 1990s, email began its migration to the web. Web portal services like Yahoo! captured users’ thinning and fractured attention spans as the landing pages for their internet experience. Providing email on these portals was a logical next step. Yahoo!, Excite, and Hotmail set up the first software-as-a-service (SaaS) email applications on their web portals—but migration from ISP to SaaS email was slow, and is still incomplete.

As the dot com bubble inflated and then burst, hundreds of ISPs connected millions of consumers to the internet. As winners and losers emerged, mergers and acquisitions consolidated the market. The telephone and cable companies were, by and large, the winners; since they owned the physical infrastructure into the subscriber premises, they saw an opportunity to establish a grip on the connectivity and online experience and on the underlying infrastructure required to deliver the services. This is the vertically integrated ISP model we remain encumbered with. These providers own the physical infrastructure that connects the consumer to the internet, the connectivity experience, the email addresses of their subscribers, and customer support. And without competition, consumers have no means to incentivize better service and lower prices. 

As the largest internet service providers have continued to invest primarily in their most profitable markets, natural monopolies have formed—and, again, with no competition, large portions of the country are left with no access, or sub par networks to compete in a modern world. It’s clear that this system has failed; it does not serve every community, and it does not serve the Americans who need it most. 

Today, internet access is too closely tied to community vitality and individual opportunity to be considered a discrete product, sold to a discrete household, with quality dependent on each vendor. A high-speed, secure connection to our increasingly distributed, remote, and digital economy is now an essential part of daily life for the average American. As a result, we must think about internet access as a utility similar to water, waste, and electricity—and that means rethinking how we build and operate the underlying infrastructure, and how services are provided over the top. The ISP-controlled, Ma Bell model must be left behind. Open access fiber networks—where ownership of the critical infrastructure is separated from the provision of services—are the solution. The open access model will usher in a new paradigm where control of services and network applications are in the hands of the end consumers, and where services like telehealth, entertainment, and financial services are delivered directly to subscribers across the network.