By Gerry Clare from notes provided by Arvo Koppel and Craig Young
The Peace Region Internet Society was formed as a “not-for-profit” society in 1994 to provide affordable access to the Internet for individuals, businesses and organizations in the Peace Region of Northern British Columbia. The society, commonly known as PRIS, is registered under the Society Act of British Columbia and now has more than 3,100 members. PRIS serves Fort Nelson, Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge. Any surplus funds generated were to be used exclusively to expand and improve services to members.
As a registered society, PRIS is governed by a volunteer Board of Directors, elected each year at an Annual General Meeting. The Directors elect an Executive and are responsible for developing policies for the society and giving direction to the society’s four full-time staff members. The society is governed by a Constitution and Bylaws which are reviewed annually and which may be changed by the Annual General Meeting.
PRIS is a member of the BC Internet Association, a non-profit society representing the interests of the Internet industry in British Columbia. Telecommunications services are purchased through BC Tel and Westel Communications.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the Internet grew from being a military communications network to a network connecting universities and academic institutions. Locally, our first contact with the Internet came in the 1980’s when the University of British Columbia (UBC) began providing computer accounts on the UBC_MTS system to teachers around the province. The demand for service quickly became too much for the University’s computer system and, as no money was available for expansion, UBC ended the free service. Simon Fraser University (SFU) was expanding its facilities at this time and began providing SFU-Exchange accounts for teachers. As demand continued to climb the BC Ministry of Education started the Community Learning Network (CLN) to provide Internet services to teachers and students throughout the province. SFU began to limit their own service to SFU students and paying customers while CLN expanded into the public school area. South Peace Secondary School in Dawson Creek was one of the first local schools to acquire dial-up lines into the Internet through the Community Learning Network. The Ministry of Education gradually shifted the responsibility for funding to local school districts, who generally did not have the money to provide wide-scale Internet service.
The Peace River Science, Technology, and Innovation Council (PRSTIC) made a proposal to the Science Council of Britich Columbia (SCBC) in 1991 to establish an INTERNET Service Provider to serve the SCBC and education community throughout the province.
PRSTIC sponsored a series of regional conferences: Communications 92, Communications 93, Communications 94 and Communications 95. These conferences brought together all local groups interested in computerized communications. Communications 94 saw invitations extended to all interested community members to meet at Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek for a discussion about getting connected to the “Information Highway”. Communications 94, organized by Craig Young, Al Brett, Dave Owens and Gordon Currie, drew a large number of people from the schools, the college, science representatives, private businesses, community organizations and the general public of Dawson Creek, Fort St. John and Chetwynd. After a series of presentations the group voted unanimously to investigate setting up a local INTERNET provider.
The Science Council of BC countered the 1991 PRSTIC proposal by funding a 1993-94 special initiative to establish ISP’s in each of the province’s 8 regional council areas. Seed funding of $20,000 was obtained from the SCBC under this new initiative, $10,000 from the Peace Regional Science, Technology and Innovation Council and the Communications 93 Legacy Fund.
The Peace Region Internet Society was registered under the Society Act on July 11, 1994. Bill Pope of the law firm Pope and Company volunteered the early legal work which resulted in a Constitution and a set of Bylaws for the society. A board of 15 volunteer directors was created, co-chaired by Craig Young and Gordon Currie.
Northern Lights College seconded the services of Larry Legault to do the technical work of equipment procurement and configuration. The college also donated a room to house PRIS and its equipment at the Dawson Creek campus. Larry Legault’s work – far beyond the official half-time basis of his assignment – was critical in those early days.
Just for fun, here’s a brief description of PRIS’s setup in those early days. Unless you are a bit of a computer historian, you may not recognize some of the items at all! The system consisted of a Sun SPARC station-5, (a 70 MHz, 64 MB UNIX box), a Xyplex 16-port Terminal Server – complete with a 1200 page manual – and 8 USR 14,400 bps modems. The parts arrived in August of 1994 and by September the domain name pris.bc.ca was registered, a 19,200 bps link was installed through BC Systems and PRIS was talking to the world. New services were added to the Sun station as they became available – Archie, Veronica, FTP, Telnet, Gopher, Pine, Kermit, z-modem, sendmail, pico, TIN and others.
Slowly, members began to trickle in. The Internet was fun to use even if it might take you more than 10 minutes to download, decode and print a picture. Just the idea of being able to pick up a picture from NASA or some other source was exciting enough for the early members of PRIS.
By the early summer of 1995 PRIS had 350 members, but over 200 of those were Northern Lights College staff who did not have to pay for their accounts. We had added two lines in Chetwynd and Fort Nelson and four in Fort St John by this time.
In the summer of 1995, PRIS hired a student – Jason Seto – to assist Larry Legault. Fresh out of high school, Jason was eager to help get PPP connections available to PRIS members so they could use the new World Wide Web browsers – mainly Netscape 1.0 at that time. The browsers, with their graphical images, made it possible (and easy) for non-technical computer users to roam the Internet.
PRIS became involved in a constant struggle to keep up with a very rapidly changing technology and a rapidly growing membership. Typically, new technologies would be installed and introduced only to be made obsolete by faster and friendlier ones.
By the end of 1995 PRIS had grown to a membership of just under 700 and Tumbler Ridge had joined the network. Larry Legault and Jason Seto had moved on to other things and PRIS’s day to day operations were taken over by one full-time employee, Arvo Koppel. Northern Lights College assisted with bookkeeping tasks through providing a part-time person, Terri Barber. PRIS was financially self-sufficient and had satisfied all its initial grant obligations, much to the relief of the founding directors.
By 1996 it was obvious that PRIS had outgrown its one small room at the college, both in terms of sheer space and in terms of the growth of the society. A mutually beneficial deal was worked out with School District #59 through which PRIS would get the room it needed in the old School Board Office building and the School District would use PRIS’s system to get the schools connected. PRIS moved into two large rooms and an equipment vault at the 106th Avenue address in the fall of 1996.
About the same time, PRIS established its own POP server in Chetwynd, again in concert with School District #59. Further expansion saw PRIS establish a POP server in Fort St John, linking that city to the world through a 128K line and a pool of thirty 33,600-baud lines. Tumbler Ridge and Fort Nelson continued to operate on slower analog lines.
By the end of 1996, PRIS membership had grown to about 1800 – an increase of over 1000 in just one year. PRIS, following its original mandate, provided free Internet connections to all of the public libraries of the Peace. Bandwidth from Dawson Creek had increased twelve-fold in that year, going from 128K to 1442K bits per second.
PRIS staff increased dramatically at the beginning of 1997 to the 1999 level of four full-time employees. As revenues increased, it was possible to improve system reliability and to build in redundancy in all the major components of the system. New hardware was added to meet the demands of a growing membership and new software was developed to allow PRIS to identify and deal with potential system problems before they happened. PRIS staff developed ways to filter out increasing loads of unsolicited junk mail (SPAM) directed at the members. PRIS also began to host virtual domains, which allowed local businesses to have the equivalent of a fully independent server without the cost or problems involved with one.
During 1997, efforts were made to provide Internet access for the Tumbler Ridge schools and to improve the quality of the dial-up service for our members in that town. PRIS ventured into the world of satellite Internet connectivity – a brief, costly and most unsatisfactory chapter in the society’s history. Eventually, a POP server was established at the Tumbler Ridge Secondary School with thirty 33,600-baud dial-up lines and a dedicated 128K link to Dawson Creek. A small portion of the funding was obtained from the Community Access Project (CAP).
1997 also marked the appearance of competitive ISP’s within the Peace. PRIS welcomed the broadening of the Internet services available to the community while ensuring that it would remain competitive in the market. A graphic artist member, Judy Arndt, designed the distinctive PRIS logo which appears on the society’s home page.
Membership continued to grow rapidly, reaching 2100 by the end of 1997.
1998 saw PRIS meeting ever growing demands for newer, faster services from its growing membership. Old equipment was taken off-line and replaced at a cost of nearly $50,000 so that 56K lines could be installed in both Dawson Creek and Fort St. John. Even with the cost of new equipment, PRIS was able to offer a $5 per month reduction in the basic fee. New spread-spectrum radio technology was installed in Chetwynd to increase bandwidth from 128K to 721K using a link to Westel’s microwave system. The year ended with a membership of 2750.
The Board of Directors elected in October of 1998 has continued to emphasize the provision of dependable, affordable Internet service to our members. At the same time, the Board has taken a broader view of its community responsibilities and has undertaken a number of initiatives to return some of its income to the five communities it serves. PRIS donates to a Christmas good-will charity in each community; provides a scholarship to each public High School in the communities served; provides free connectivity to local groups who promote the cultural and social well-being of the community and provides free e-mail access to qualified local businesses to encourage them to adopt new technology. PRIS continues to provide free connection to the Internet for all public libraries in the Peace.