“Our 64K link to The Internet is up and running” – SA’s first commercial ISP

South Africa has a proud Internet history which tracks back to Rhodes University in 1988 when Francois Jacot Guilarmod, Dave Wilson, and Mike Lawrie established an email link to the Internet.

Using donated and salvaged equipment, these Internet pioneers built their own Internet gateway and Rhodes University received its first IP network number.

Most of the early work happened at South African universities, but a few people saw the commercial potential of the Internet.

Three such people are Chris Pinkham, Paul Nash, and Alan Barrett, who founded South Africa’s first commercial Internet service provider – The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa.

The ISP operated out of a small office in Cape Town with a single 64kbps link to UUNET Technologies in the United States.

Alan Barrett
Alan Barrett

Colin Pinkham, who helped to start the ISP and build its IP network to over 23 locations, shed light on the early days of Internet access in South Africa.

He said The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa started with only four original customers.

One of these customers was The Internet Solution (TIS), an ISP founded by Ronnie Apteker, Phil Green, Tom Mcwalter, and Joe Silva.

It would later change its name to Internet Solutions, which was acquired by Dimension Data and became one of the largest commercial ISPs in South Africa.

Pinkham said the first packets from The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa crossed the international line in November 1993, as seen by the following post:

>Newsgroups: uninet.config,sanet.config
>From: [email protected] (Chris Pinkham)
>Subject: New Internet link in place
>Message-ID: <[email protected]>
>Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1993 18:26:51 GMT
>Organization: Aztec Information Management & Guest logins

The Internetworking Company of Southern Africa (Ticsa) is pleased to announce that its 64K link to The Internet is up and running. Ticsa’s Cape Town hub is connected to Alternet in Falls Church VA.

Ticsa is a new company whose goal is to extend Internet services in the region to those who have previously not had access, such as commercial organisations and other non-academic bodies, as well as those in neighbouring countries. It operates with a voluntary, not-for-profit philosophy, based on the founders’ desire to make these services available for as low a cost as possible.

As of tonight (Monday, 1 November), four companies have access to the Internet via Ticsa, with another six connections scheduled for the coming week. A connection between Uninet-ZA and Ticsa is planned, linking all the local IP nets. Currently, communication between Ticsa and Uninet sites crosses the Atlantic (twice :-).

For more information about Ticsa, contact us on (021) 419-2768, or send us email at [email protected]

One of the original companies using Ticsa’s services was Compustat, who had created the iaccess.za service for dial-up users.

Compustat bought into Ticsa and they moved their operations into new offices in Newlands. They also changed their name to Internet Africa.

“This is where real growth, mostly in the dial-up space, occurred. It was also starting to gain traction in corporate,” Pinkham said.

This growth changed the way the ISP functioned technologically – from standalone modems on racks with individual phone lines to banks of modem racks with ISDN PRI circuits connected to support hundreds of modems in a single cabinet.

“Likewise, leased lines entered as multiplexed lines and later on as channelised circuits, starting with channelised E1s,” he said.

By 1996 Internet Africa enjoyed strong dial-up uptake and they started to rapidly grow their corporate client base.

This attracted the attention of larger players, and Datatec acquired a large stake in Internet Africa to create an ISP to take on the corporate world.

“Initially, the combination of these two operations became Pipex Internet Africa with Datatec the majority shareholder and Unipalm Pipex holding a minority share,” said Pinkham.

UUNET Technologies

After Unipalm Pipex was acquired by UUNET Technologies, the company changed its name to UUNET Internet Africa.

After MWEB launched Internet services with a strong drive into the residential dial-up market, a long-term strategic agreement was formed between MWEB and UUNET Internet Africa.

Through this agreement the dial-up consumers from UUNET Internet Africa were transferred to the management of MWEB. In turn, the corporate leased line customers of MWEB were transferred to UUNET Internet Africa.

UUNET Internet Africa was later rebranded to UUNET SA. Worldcom, who owned UUNET, also acquired the controlling 76% of shares held by Datatec.

After Worldcom filed for chapter bankruptcy in 2002, UUNET re-emerged globally as a wholesale unit and rebranded as MCI. The South African operations continued under the UUNET brand.

Verizon acquired MCI in 2006 and all the business units were integrated into Verizon Business. This included UUNET SA which rebranded to Verizon Business South Africa.

“Despite all of the shareholder issues, the business in South Africa was remarkably resilient and had managed to keep hold of some excellent technical skills,” Pinkham said.

Verizon Business South Africa was bought by MTN in 2009.

Credit to Colin Pinkham for his excellent series on South Africa’s first commercial ISP. Read more here.

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“Our 64K link to The Internet is up and running” – SA’s first commercial ISP