Does anyone remember what life was like before the Internet? In the UK the Internet really took off in 1992. Before that, people in the UK had a limited choice if they wanted Net access. If they were in higher education they had access to the Joint Academic Network, better known as Janet, and the alternative was to pay vast sums for a dedicated Internet connection via a leased line. Home users and smaller businesses could sign up to private network service providers such as Compuserve to send or receive e-mail.
One such service was a conference and bulletin board service called Compulink Information Exchange or Cix. Cliff Stanford, a subscriber on Cix, got wind of an offer from Pipex for a leased line service costing £20,000 a year. So, using his online Cix user name "Demon", he began a discussion group on Cix urging people to help him buy a leased line connection from Pipex that they all could share.
The discussion group was called "tenner a month". The idea was to provide low-cost, desktop access to the Net. Stanford set his target at 400 users. By 1995 Demon Internet had 45,000 subscribers. He saw no reason why he couldn't set up individual dial-up accounts for £10 a month. From these lowly beginnings the UK now has an abundance of low-cost ISPs.
For someone who has witnessed first-hand all the booms and busts of the Internet, Stanford is refreshingly optimistic about its future. "We are at the very beginning. It is amazing what you will be able to do," he says.
On the business front, Stanford says it will be possible to reconfigure a telephone switch remotely over the Net. In fact, he believes that anything electronic, from washing machines to fridges, could use the Internet in some way. Currently, he says, "There is a lot of experimental stuff."
One of the issues in the industry is that all these extra devices will put the Internet under immense strain and it could run out of IP addresses. That may have been true a few years ago, but today Stanford feels the industry has an answer to the address problem with Network Address Translation.
This is a means of remapping IP addresses when a user logs off and reassigning them to someone else. "Tremendous work has been done. Today we could give three-and-a-half IP addresses to everyone in the world," says Stanford.
He believes that new technologies, namely version 6 of Internet protocol (IPv6), which are aimed at resolving the IP address issue, are no longer needed. He says, "IPv6 will never happen. By the time it arrives it will be too old." He says that "a simpler solution" is likely to evolve.
Stanford also feels that lack of broadband has hampered the UK's growth of Internet services. "There was no reason for delaying asymmetric digital subscriber line [ADSL]. It could have been rolled out in 1999," he says. Stanford attributes the failure of one of his businesses to BT's failure to, "put out broadband [services.]" It is crazy, he says, "lack of broadband is crippling business".
As for the issue of how to price broadband Internet services, Stanford says, "It should be free." He says that the service is far too expensive. "Why have 100 subscribers paying £50 per month when you could have 100,000 subscribers paying £5 [a month]."
Mobile Internet promises to be the next big thing but Stanford feels there is a genuine lack of really good applications. "Mobile Internet has not got the business drivers. It is too expensive," he says. While he says there is a real cost involved for mobile operators, in terms of network infrastructure, "we still need applications to take advantage of mobile Web access".
But will people be able to afford those services? Stanford agrees that the personal digital assistants available today are very expensive. But this will not create a digital elite - the so-called digital divide where only wealthier individuals have Internet access. "I don't think there is a digital divide," Stanford says. "Perhaps there's a divide between techies and non-techies."
But he says the situation is similar to the days when colour television sets arrived. At first, only people who were reasonably well off could afford the more expensive televisions. "The first colour TVs were considered a luxury but they went down in price considerably," he points out.
Stanford hopes ADSL and broadband Internet access will go down in price the same way.
Stanford's decade of success
June 1992: Cliff Stanford establishes Demon
October 1995: Demon has 45,000 subscribers
January 1998: Demon Internet signs £1.5m sponsorship deal with Fulham Football Club
May 1998: Demon Internet is acquired by Scottish Telecom for £66m. Stanford makes £33m from the sale
May 1998: Stanford sets up Redbus Investment, a £15m venture fund
June 1999: Co-location outfit Redbus Interhouse goes live
March 2000: Stanford appointed to the advisory council for the Foundation of Information Policy Research.