25 Years of Philippine Cyberspace

August 2011 is turning out to be one helluva month of important tech anniversaries.

For one, it’s the 20th anniversary of the World-Wide Web. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the IBM PC  (and MS-DOS), and the 50th anniversary of the IBM Selectric typewriter!

On the home front, August also marks the 25th anniversary of Philippine Cyberspace. You probably won’t read too many mainstream articles marking this event, as it has not been very well documented. But we’re calling it anyway. A quarter of a century of Pinoys in Cyberspace.

What’s that you say, Cyberspace? That’s such an archaic word today. It was hip in the 80’s when it was coined by cyberpunk author William Gibson, but today this is considered as unhip as Al Gore’s term “Information Superhighway”.

But what else can you call it? “The Online World”? The “Electronic Ether?”. How about “The Digital Realm” ? Given the choices, “cyberspace” sounds pretty reasonable.

At any rate, it was sometime in August 1986 that Filipinos started going online. And this was way before the introduction of the Internet, which didn’t reach our shores until March 1994. The country’s first online addicts were using Bulletin Board Systems (also referred to as BBS’es).

It was in August-September 1986 that the first BBS sightings took place. The first free access BBS went online, “STAR BBS” operated by Efren Tercias and James Chua of Wordtext Systems. Running a free bulletin board software called Fido.

And the first commercial BBS went online. “First-Fil RBBS” operated by Ed Castaneda and Dan Angeles, charged the then-princely sum of 1,000 pesos a year for “premium access”.

Access speeds at the time were limited to a blazing 1,200 bps, thanks to the state-of-the-art modem of the time, the Hayes Smartmodem 1200. Due to poor dial-up lines, a lot of users got by on just 300 bps. Try imagine downloading a movie at those glacial speeds.

In 2001, Chin Wong, then editor of Computerworld Philippines, interviewed me for an article on the beginnings of the Philippine online scene. His article is still online on his site.

Here’s an excerpt from Chin’s article:

Using a dial-up communication protocol called Fidonet, bulletin boards were able to link up to each other, allowing callers to send e-mail to other nodes, download shareware, and participate in discussion forums that are the forerunners of today’s e-groups or newsgroups.

People who put up the boards and called in formed the core of the Philippine online community, says Jim Ayson, a chronicler of local Internet events and Computerworld columnist.

The first public access BBS was named First-FIL RBBS, set up in August 1986 by Ed Castañeda and Dan Angeles, Ayson says. The board ran on an XT-compatible assembled by Castañeda’s company. The board ran 24 hours a day.

“The general message area was open to the public but for all the other areas, Ed and Dan—sensing electronic commerce somewheredown the pike—charged an annual subscription of P1,000,” Ayson says.

A month after First-FIL RBBS went up, Efren Tercias and James Chua of Wordtext Systems launched Star BBS, the first BBS in the country running Fido software. Using a dial-up protocol called FidoNet, Chua and Tercias later managed to link their board to Fox BBS run by Johnson Sumpio, marking another milestone in the country’s online history.

“Using Tom Jenning’s bizarre little dial-up communications protocol, FidoNet, they actually sent e-mail to each other,” Ayson recalls. “Of course, the fact that their offices were just next door to each other tended to blur that achievement a bit.”

Other Fido-based boards followed, including Andromeda, run by Obet Verzola and funded by a non-government organization; and a popular board run by Eddie Manalo, the grandson of the founder of the Iglesia ni Cristo.

By 1991, people could send e-mail to the Internet from the BBS network. However it would take three to four days for the mail to reach the recipient on the Internet, Ayson notes.

I think 25 years of the online scene is worth commemorating, so for the rest of the month, I’ll be putting up blog posts about the early BBS scene and the beginnings of the Internet in this country.

I got the ball rolling by reviving an old article I wrote in 1994 about FidoNet BBS systems: “When Fidonet Meets the Internet.”

Also online is the piece “The Night Benjie Tan Hooked Up the Philippines to the Internet” that was originally posted online in 2001.

Finally, over several days I will be serializing an old piece I wrote called “Hooked Up: The Day the Philippines Connected to the Net” about the events leading up to March 29, 1994, the date of the first Philippine connection to the Internet. This was originally published in the Inquirer in March 2001.

Happy Anniversary, Netizens!

One thought on “25 Years of Philippine Cyberspace

  1. we got internet in 1994 because my parents worked in MSU-IIT which was one of the first connected. naabutan ko pa yung mga news groups 🙂 dos-based ba yung PC wala pang windows and my dad used wordstar.

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