Posted on November 21, 2023 in Technology

Public Internet Access Terminals

In the early days of the internet, the average computer was still bulky and often pretty pricey. Most electronics were! Some people still have the brick phones or old CRT monitor computers they used before the size of transistors and chips shrank, and finding those old models in movies or on eBay isn’t hard.

Bringing the internet out of designated places (colleges, libraries, the home, etc.) into other spots it might be useful was difficult. One of the wackier ideas of the time, the Public Internet Access Terminal, foresaw a world where computers would be like payphones, in 2003.

American Terminal Public Internet Access Portal

Sources on this company are incredibly limited. One Youtube video: pops up when the exact name of the kiosk is searched. One very old commercial proves the existence of the internet’s first tendrils encroaching into public space.

The commercial itself is a perfect snapshot of how people viewed the web in its early days. You might need it on the go. It might be like a payphone someday. The computer inside the terminal will make you money and won’t need to be replaced by the next more powerful model anytime soon because it’s good enough as it is (as a reminder, Moore’s Law stated that the number of transistors on a circuit would double about every two years, and up until recently ). People in the comments remember using them to check online game accounts and send last-minute emails before hopping onto planes or busses.

And yet, no other source aside from this commercial seems to exist! Despite their confidence in their product, they weren’t confident enough to build a website for prospective franchisees.

I Just Need To Send An Email

Internet usage at the time was limited – Amazon was still selling primarily books, computers were still pretty large, and while things like email were much more convenient than snail mail or phone calls for their traceable, info-dense nature, not everyone had an email address. For the lighter users of the internet, stopping by the library to check their digital mailboxes was a cheap and easy way of keeping up with the times without committing to a fullblown computer. After all, the dot com crash ruined the internet’s most aggressive investors. If it somehow didn’t pan out, they wouldn’t be out too much money.

The problem was that while that crash was disastrous, the internet still had plenty of use! And people who didn’t want to invest in the equipment were being pulled further and further into it either by work or for recreation.

In the midst of this, a particularly enterprising company thought to put together internet terminals that could be put in places like airports, and controlled by outside franchisees like vending machines often are. To the people trying to sell these products, the age of computers was slowing down post-crash, and  while they may have anticipated that these computers would be fully depreciated by the time the owner paid back the investment and maintenance costs (just like any free money scheme, if this was actually as low risk as they advertise, they would have kept it to themselves), they likely didn’t picture a world where the very thought of one of these things existing freely, unmonitored, in public, paid for by the minute and not the GB, would seem outdated. Like a payphone.