Internet

PEI2014: The Island Web at 20

In addition to the other hullabaloo, 2014 almost marks the 20th anniversary of the first Prince Edward Island website, one I was happy to midwife during my tenure at the PEI Crafts Council from 1993 to 1994.

The site – www.crafts-council.pe.ca – isn’t around any longer (although its descendant is) and it’s old enough that’s it’s not even archives in the Wayback Machine. It went live on July 7, 1994, announced with a press release sent out, among other destinations, to Usenet, where it remains archived for posterity. My favourite part of that press release is “For additional information on the World Wide Web, contact Tim Berners-Lee at the European Labratory for Particle Physics.”

The site itself was running on an IBM-PC sitting on my desk at 156 Richmond Street in Charlottetown. It was running Linux, and was connected to the Internet via two 14.4 kbps modems, one on eash end of a leased Island Tel copper circuit, with the other end at PEINet on Kent Street across from the fire hall. That’s about 1500 times less bandwidth than I have running into my office now, but it did the job. And people visited: as I related in a speech in Newfoundland later that year:

And then I took our old MS-DOS database files, massaged them a bit, wrote some programs under UNIX to allow them to be searched, and plugged our Gopher and World Wide Web servers in.

I put notices up in the various crafts related newsgroups and got us listed in the InterNIC and Gopher jewels directories, wrote a short FAQ file about how to get to us, and opened the door.

Since we went “live” on July 11, we’ve averaged about 300 Gopher hits a day, with about half as many Web hits. Roughly 1500 people have searched our database which, if your extrapolate out over a year at the same level of usage, would mean 9000 searches a year and a cost to us of just over $2 a search.

While the Crafts Council website didn’t last much longer than my time with the organization, the investment in that project – from the provincial and federal governments and from CANARIE – paid off: I took the skills I developed there and applied them to creating a website for the Province of PEI, a project that I remained with for 8 years, and they are, fundamentally, the skills I use in my job every day.

While this PEI2014 doesn’t have a logo nor a Shania Twain concert to its name, I think it’s worthy of marking nonetheless: come July maybe I’ll track down Kevin O’Brien and Jim Hancock and Dave Cairns and Bob Horobin and Earlene Gallant and Scott Fletcher and Irene Renaud and everyone else who helped make it happen and we’ll toast the memory of the little website that did.

The First Use of “Internet” in the Legislative Assembly

My first job on Prince Edward Island, 20 years ago, was at the PEI Crafts Council. Two years later I began working with the Province of PEI on creating a provincial government website, and in the spring of the following year, in April 1996, Premier Catherine Callbeck rose in the house to speak about this project; I believe this to be the first use of the word “Internet” in the official records of the Legislative Assembly:

Premier: Madam Speaker, last year the Province of Prince Edward Island established a horne page that we call the “Internet Information Centre.” Our intent was to use the Internet to promote Prince Edward Island as a place to do business and as a place to visit. We also plan to use the Internet to provide government information to the Internet community. We’re extremely pleased, Madam Speaker, with the results of the Internet Information Centre to date. Our home page has received several awards, including the top five percent on the Internet and mentioned at the top 100 list from PC magazine. This is quite an accomplishment, considering that there are more than six million sites on the Internet. In addition, our site has been mentioned in several Internet books and computer magazines. The site was also featured in a recent book regarding Canadian Internet sites. According to reviews, we have an excellent Internet home page. Now Madam Speaker, thousands of people from around the world visit our site every month. The best measure of our Internet Information Centre is electronic mail that we receive from those people who use our site.

One American user said and I quote, Madam Speaker:

I am extremely impressed with all of the work that Prince Edward Island does to attract visitors to their Island. I visit every year and truly believe that PEl is in fact the most beautiful place on earth. I know that I will retire and move to the Island some day. I have never met anyone unkind on Prince Edward Island I’ve never been to any other place in the U.S.” and he’s got in brackets (my home), “where a community is so down to earth. Thank you for being the way you are. Regarding the Internet Information Centre, I am simply amazed. I have not been able to locate any other service on the Internet where the government has done such a great job to promote their products.”

And that’s the end of the quote.

Our site, Madam Speaker, contains a broad variety of information including our electronic visitors guide that permits searching for accommodation. We also have information about doing business on Prince Edward Island. The site is a greeting card centre and information on the PEl Legislature. Last month for the first time we put both the Throne Speech and the Budget Speech on the Internet Access was provided at the same time as they were being delivered in the Legislative Assembly. This means that an Internet user anywhere in the world could read the speeches at the same time as they were being delivered. Given the success of the last year’s efforts, we also provided immediate Internet access to the Throne and Budget Speeches this year. I’m pleased to tell the members of this House that there has been considerable interest in both speeches.

To date more than 450 people have looked at the Budget Speech on the Internet. This represents 1,250 hits. More than 200 have taken a copy from the Internet for use in their computer. Madam Speaker, some of the persons assessing the Budget Speech are off-Island users. Provincial and federal government officials across Canada, as well as financial institutions have utilized the Internet to read or to take a copy of our Budget Speech. Some of those accessing the Budget Speech were also from the United States. More than 400 people have accessed the Throne Speech on the Internet.

This year we have put the Hansard on the Internet, which enables Internet users to read about our Session. Last year former Islanders sent E-mail to tell us that they loved to read about the Session in the Legislature as they kept in touch, because they could keep in touch with what was going on back home. The fact that the speeches are available electronically has reduced the demand for printed copy of the speeches. We have reduced the number of paper copies this year for the Budget Speech.

Also, Madam Speaker, for the Christmas of 1995, we introduced an Internet Christmas greeting card. From the time we began the service in early December to early January, more than 48,000 Christmas cards were sent Anyone with an Internet account could send an electronic Christmas card to another Internet user. The card included the option to select a scenic view of PEl and verses. People from around the world used our greeting card centre - people from Taiwan, from Australia, from England, used the service to send Christmas cards. Based on this success, we introduced a greeting card service which allows Internet users to send birthday cards, as well as any other cards - Valentine, Easter. Since we introduced that, we’ve had more than 10,000 card (Indistinct). We’ve received electronic mail from many users thanking us for the service and telling us what a great means of promoting Prince Edward Island.

Madam Speaker, we can take pride in the fact that we are using leading edge technology to promote Prince Edward Island to provide information to the public. We plan to continue to use the Internet to promote PEl to provide information to Islanders and other Internet users. Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I came across this statement via the newly-lauched PEI Legslative Documents Online project, a rich and well-crafted collaboration of the Legislative Assembly, Hansard office, the government services library and the provincial archives, led by my colleagues at Robertson Library at the University of PEI.

Canada's First Domain Name: Twenty-five Years of upei.ca

One of the unsung aspects of the University of Prince Edward Island is its pioneering involvement in the early Internet: under the leadership of Jim Hancock (Director of Computer Services from 1972 to 1997), UPEI, among other things, participated in the NetNorth, CA*Net and CANARIE initiatives, hosted Prince Edward Island’s first connection to the Internet, and registered the country’s first “.ca” domain, upei.ca, in 1988.

The upei.ca domain name registration’s anniversary is coming up on Sunday: 25 years ago, on January 12, 1988, the domain was registered with John Demco at the University of BC, a name well-known to any of us involved in the early Internet in Canada, as he was the go-to guy for all .ca domain name registrations for many years (back when they were free, but encumbered by many restrictions; that’s how I ended up, for a time, with the domain name digitalisland.kingston.pe.ca).

While the university’s work in this regard had tremendous benefits for the institution itself, it benefited Prince Edward Island as a whole in many other ways. In my case it made for my first contact with PEI when I was applying for a job here – an email from Morley Pinsent using the CA*Net email system hosted by UPEI that was free to any Islander who asked – and, once I relocated here, it was my conduit to the greater world through my email address caprukav@atlas.cs.upei.ca (I still remember the day in 1993 when, as a meek 27 year old, Earlene Gallant handled the paperwork to sign me up for this).

UPEI’s work led to PEINet, which became (via a 14.4 kbps leased line connection) the conduit for the first webserver on PEI, at the PEI Crafts Council, to join the network; later, it was on PEINet’s web host that I created the first versions of www.gov.pe.ca. Through this all, the counsel of Jim’s successor as Director of Computer Services, Dave Cairns, was extremely valuable (the best piece of advice Dave ever gave me: hard drives will always fail, eventually, and maybe tomorrow).

All Islanders owe a great debt to the University of PEI for its vision in this regard; to help mark the occasion, I printed up a ceremonial poster on the letterpress this afternoon, and I’ll stick them up around town and campus over the next few days:

Celebrate 24 Years of UPEI.CA Poster

Celebrate 24 Years of UPEI.CA Poster

Celebrate 24 Years of UPEI.CA Poster

How to Order the “PEI Plan” for Rural Wireless Internet

Because I found it so difficult to get information about the so-called “PEI Plan” from Bell Aliant, here’s a brief synopsis of what you need to know if you’re interested in taking advantage of it yourself. I wish Bell Aliant or the Province of PEI documented the details themselves somewhere; for now, apparently, the details are in an internal Bell Aliant document that employees cannot release to the public.

  1. The plan is in place as a “stop-gap” measure for rural Islanders who live at addresses not yet served by Bell Aliant’s wired Internet. So, to be eligible, you need to establish that your address isn’t eligible for wired Internet. You should be able to find this out on the High Speed Availability Check page on the Bell Aliant website, but there might be an additional “check with engineering” when you request the service to double-check this.
  2. There’s no cost for the hardware: Bell Aliant provides a Novatel MiFi 2732 as part of the plan (you must return the device if you cancel service).
  3. No long-term contract is required. You must give 30 days notice to cancel service.
  4. There’s a $35 one-time sign-up fee.
  5. If you’re not already a Bell Aliant customer for other services, they’ll do a credit check before approving you for service. You’ll be asked to provide your date of birth and one of your SIN number or a credit card number. The credit check happens quite quickly.
  6. There’s a monthly fee of $49.95 for the service.
  7. There’s no usage cap, and no usage-based billing: you pay $49.95/month no matter how much Internet you use.
  8. You can connect up to 5 devices to the MiFi unit via wifi. Range of the signal, in my testing, is sufficient to reach all corners of a large house.

This service is a good deal compared to the equivalent Bell Mobility service (which is, in effective, what you’re being resold a version of by Bell Aliant): with no contact you’d need to spend $199.95 for a wireless MiFi-like device, and the mobile Internet plans increase in price as you increase usage (I exceeded the 100MB entry-level $22/month cap simply by testing the device and in the 18 hours since I dropped the device off for my cousin usage has been 500MB).

To order this service do NOT call Bell Aliant’s regular customer service or support numbers, as it’s likely that the people you talk to will not know about this PEI-specific plan. And do NOT go to the Bell Aliant-branded kiosk in the Charlottetown Mall, as they are not able to provision the service there.

Instead, call the Bell Aliant Charlottetown “mobility” office at 902-566-0117 and ask about the “PEI wireless rural Internet plan,” or go and visit the office in person: it’s located in the old Island Tel maintenance building at the corner of Queen and Belvedere; park between the large headquarters building and go inside the marked entrance, then through the first door on your left and ring the bell on the desk. A (in my experience, helpful and friendly) representative will come out to assist you.

If, for some reason, you are told that the service is no longer available, or that there’s a long waiting list for hardware, point them to my experience, and mention to them that the official position of Bell Aliant, as communicated to the media after I raised the issue, is that there is no waiting list or delay in providing service to eligible customers.

Two Days Out of the World

Following the promise of success in my drive to get Cousin Sergii equipped with high speed Internet on the farm in Green Meadows, I headed out to Bell Aliant’s old maintenance shed at the corner of Queen and Belvedere in midtown Charlottetown yesterday. I was greeted by Marcie, who I’d spoken to earlier in the day, and she handed over a small paperback-book-sized box containing a Bell-branded Novatel MiFi 2732, a credit-card-sized device that is, in essence, a cell phone that only does data.

Bell Mifi

Oddly, I was strongly advised to not leave the battery in the unit — it can run by an internal cell-phone-sized battery or by electric plug — because “the batteries can expand” (there’s more details in this 2010 report). But, okay, we can run the device from the mains with no problem.

Marcie was very helpful: walked me through the setup of the device, gave me some tips about day-to-day usage, and so on. She’s the kind of helpful “when you call, I’ll be there”-style employee that Bell Aliant needs more of in their call centres.

I headed home to downtown Charlottetown to test the device before heading out to Green Meadows; it worked without issues: started up, found a signal and, when I connected by wifi to the device’s SSID, I was prompted for a WPA password which, helpfully, was printed on a label on the device itself.

MiFi Throughput in the City

In town the throughput wasn’t great — 0.60 Mbps down and 0.03 Mbps up, which is much less than the device’s theoretical 7.2 Mbps down and 5.7 Mbps up. But I’d been cautioned by Marcie that the service is kneecapped by Bell Aliant so as to be equivalent to the throughput on their rural wired DSL Internet, so I wasn’t expecting “high” high speeds (I can see the internal logic of this “parity” in service, but it does seem odd to handicap a device in the name of equity; I suppose the concern is the shock customers would experience otherwise when forced to “downgrade” to wired Internet).

But, even at 0.60 Mbps down, I could still make Skype calls (albeit audio-only), and surf the web (albeit at dial-up like responsiveness), so we packed everything up and headed out to Green Meadows.

On arriving we were warmly greeted by Sergey, who, without mobile or wired phone nor Internet, told us he’d spent “two days out of the world.”

Mifi Throughput in Green Meadows

I powered up the MiFi unit, set it on the window, and connected to it with my iPad and ran another speed test; to my surprise and delight the situation was much improved over the city: 3.42 Mbps down and 1.32 Mbps up. Sergii connected his laptop via wifi, fired up Skype, and was, shortly thereafter, doing a full-on video Skype call with his wife and daughters in Ukraine, taking them on a tour of the house he, for his time here on PEI, calls home.

Bringing Sergii “back into the world” and letting him reconnect with his family made all my machinations this week worth it. I snapped a photo of the happy family chatting away and sent it off to Bell Aliant, just to remind them what wonders their technology is capable of.

It’s useful to remember in all of this, that if you’d told 1994-me that there would be a day that you’d be able to pack more than a “T1” full of bandwidth into something you can slip into your pocket, I’d not have believed you. Really amazing bandwidth back then was 14.4 KBps, which is 0.0144 Mbps, or 237 times slower than what Sergii has out on the farm now.

Barring any changes in throughput (or unanticipated battery expansions), Sergii’s set now. Thanks to all who helped make this happen.