"What's an Internet, Again?"
My office at 110 30th Ave North is surrounded by windows, offering a nice panoramic view of the west side of town. I probably have the best view of the Vanderbilt football team’s victory flag waving over the stadium, a rarity since it has not had such a lengthy presence during the offseason. Perhaps of more interest to readers of this blog is the 5” pipe protruding from the wall directly behind me. It is partially hidden behind a bookcase and is hardly noticeable since it is only about 8 inches from the floor. In the springtime, baby birds usually chirp incessantly from a well-fortified nest on the other side of the stuffed paper towels that have been crammed in the hole to serve as insulation.
There is little to suggest now that this was once the gateway to Telalink Corporation’s oh-so-primitive “data center” in the early years and that this pipe would allow for Nashvillians to take their first ride on the ‘Net. It was late summer/early fall 1994, not a particularly fond memory for me as I was still living in Winchester, Kentucky. My father was dying a slow, agonizing death from cancer. My family struggled with how to best care for him but there was no denying that he would not survive, even after radiation, disfiguring surgery and radical doses of chemotherapy. Dad was relegated to a lonely existence of morphine patches, Ensure, “pity” visits from friends and hospice services. I say “lonely” because he was largely left alone much of the day while my mother was teaching and my brother and I both worked. Hospice eventually sent caretakers to sit with him during the day but that was after the morphine made it too dangerous for us to let him be alone. What does this have to do with anything?
On the day that Dad became a hospice patient, a sentencing that did not quite sink in with him since he was planning to get better, I remember telling him that I would see him every single day for the rest of his life (I knew what his hospice patient status meant). My routine was largely to come home from the bank, change and head over to sit with him before dinner. One night, as we watched “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw,” a feature segment about the “World Wide Web” was the headline story. Dad was hardly able to focus but I remember commenting to him, “Dad, can you believe this stuff? They’re talking about doing business, advertising, listening to music, connecting businesses to customers with ‘web sites.‘ This is like some kind of science fiction thing. This will never happen any time soon. This kind of stuff has gotta be decades away, don’t you think, Dad?” He agreed with me but the truth was quite different. Dad was slowly dying, not unlike his clothing manufacturing company which was shuttered a few years before, just a distant memory. Far from the dead and dying, my friends Bill, Tim and Tommy were in Nashville, birthing and raising one of the earliest ISP’s right off of West End Avenue, helping to sweep in the new economy that would change the world forever.
A small advertisement in the Nashville Scene was sufficient to lure a few hundred customers to Telalink right out of the gate. The rapid pace that these entrepreneurs had to keep to stay just slightly ahead of the growing user base could be likened to that “I Love Lucy” scene, the one where she and Ethel are trying to wrap the candies on the conveyor belt before they go by and the process just keeps speeding up. I don’t really know who did what but I do know that Tim was programming some of the first websites in town. Smokey Mountain Knifeworks, Davis-Kidd, an ad agency that was famous for its jingles. I’m going to have to let him name them. Bill, on the other hand, was battling the whole modem/Bitsurfer configuration and trying to keep enough phone lines open to handle the demand for service...which, brings us back to the pipe in the wall...
BellSouth was obligated to sell phone service to the office at a residential rate, which was a cost advantage for Telalink. The problem was that BellSouth was not exactly thrilled with delivering all of these phone lines to a condo off of West End Ave for the lower margin service and, often, they became somewhat slow to reply to Telalink’s new orders. This constant battle with the monopolistic Ma Bell of Nashville would last until July 4, 1996 when the game changed but that is for a later story. At some point, the orders were so great, that BellSouth had to cut a hole and insert the “bird-house” pipe in the wall of the Telalink data center to accommodate all of the lines. What used to be someone’s bedroom (I think it was Tommy’s) became the designated location for Bitsurfers, modems, routers, hubs, switches and web servers, all of which were starting to pile up fast.
Albie Del Favero and Bruce Dobie owned the Nashville Scene back then. In early 1995, these guys jumped on the ‘Net. They worked out a deal with Telalink to get the Scene online in exchange for advertising. WSMV/Channel 4, did the same thing. Hammock Publishing, Curb Records and Griffin Technology, to name a few, were soon to follow. They needed access and they needed websites. Telalink was eager to get out in front, especially because Telalink wasn’t just selling dial-up accounts. They were selling ISDN access- twice the speed of regular dial-up service. I am sure that someone will correct me but I think a single channel ISDN dial-up account was 64K and most regular accounts were 28.8K.
Tim kept the books in MultiLedger. Bill devised a billing system with FileMaker Pro and started building on an idea that the lads had conceived earlier- Nashville.net- a website that acted like a “virtual community” where websites would all be represented on a caricature map of the city of Nashville. You should check this out: http://bit.ly/XJHTKV. Truly, these guys were ahead of their time. Already, they were imagining the web as a thriving community with opportunities for commerce soon to come.
As much work as it took to: launch a start-up ISP on a shoestring budget; develop a competitive pricing strategy; handle an avalanche of sales calls; negotiate strategic trades; craft a technical support policy; manage exponential growth; learn HTML well enough to know that good programmers don’t necessarily make for good web designers (and vice versa); establish a users’ starter kit (complete with NetScape Navigator download!); do a little accounting and billing ever so often; battle daily with BellSouth; and constantly buy and install more hardware; the Telalink team was having fun and attracting some of the most brilliant minds around. The Telalink “Intern” program spawned an unbelievable number of successes, something I will address in another posting. Indeed, Telalink in 1995 was the wild frontier in more ways than one. Parties on the roof were legendary. All night video game marathons were common. Work or play, it was never a dull moment.
After my dad died on October 9, 1994, I became restless in my hometown. After a few months of finalizing Dad’s affairs, I decided to get away from things and headed to Nashville to meet up with some friends for the Vanderbilt-Kentucky men’s basketball game. I called Bill Butler to let him know that I would be in town. “That’s great! I need to talk to you about something,” he said. “Can you come over after the game? I want to show you our Internet company.”
“Cool,” I said. “What’s an Internet, again?”
To be continued....
AUTHOR: Thomas Conner
Thomas Conner is the co-founder, president and chief financial officer of Sitemason, a hosted, supported alternative to Wordpress and Drupal, built for agencies, freelance designers and developers.