How Tom Wheeler Almost Invented the Internet

Ottawa Citizen/Art by Julian Reyes

The year was 1984, a time when Apple was busy convincing the world that George Orwell’s apocalyptic vision of the future wouldn’t come true. Tom Wheeler—now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission—was 38-years-old and had recently been appointed president of an Ottawa-based company called NABU Network, a company that would later be referred to as the “Internet, ten years ahead of its time.” by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

NABU Network—founded in 1982 by John Kelly—was the first “cable-based micro-computer operated home computer game network.” At the time, the idea of having a computer at home was still very much foreign to most people. Huge room-sized mainframe computers dominated the scene and the notion of owning an office computer was just starting to be conceived. Earlier iterations of the Internet were still only rumors concealed behind secret projects within the US government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).


The NABU computers were an innovative take on bringing computing home and were distributed through Ottawa Cablevision, a cable company based in Canada's capital city. They sold for $950, about a quarter of the price for a Macintosh Plus.

Ottawa Cablevision Theme Song (1978)

The company featured apps that could be downloaded from servers to watch the stock market, play games, read news/current events, and code in a language called Logo. At its peak, the system had over 100 applications available for download and delivered a total of 6.5 megabytes per second through their cable system to 5,000 users. They even featured a primitive form of cloud computing through an uploading system that saved information. The computer ran on a then lightning fast 3.57Mhz processor. For comparison, an iPhone 5S runs on dual-core 1,300mhz processors.

A couple of years later, NABU hired Tom Wheeler to be its president following his resignation from the National Cable Television Association. He had already gained notable notoriety for championing the deregulation of cable networks and trimming the authority of governments over cable operators in the US Senate. That same year, NABU expanded their system for the first time out of Ottawa to the US in Alexandria, Virginia. Wheeler was set to do something different. He felt that cable television had stagnated and needed a new medium through which to propagate its wealth.


“Cable must move into the next generation of services that current technology can provide if the industry wants to see profits rise above current levels,” he told the Ottawa Citizen in 1984. “The future lies in being able to offer information and education packages” he said, adding that “information systems such as the one NABU provides are one way of attracting new customers.”

With a vision of having over 500 applications, Tom Wheeler wanted to create the home box office for the data transmission field —or what is now known as the Internet— and predicted that 150,000 users would adopt the system over the course of two years. The dream was set to spread the technology in the difficult and competitive U.S. market to form a continent=wide network of NABUs.


In an article with InfoWorld, Barbara J. Ruger, then vice president of NABU, described that their network would become compatible with all major computer systems. “People who have their own computers won’t have to rent NABU equipment —-they’ll just need access to a cable TV system and a NABU adaptor”. The NABU adaptor would basically translate to a modern day internet modem.


An ad for NABU Network originally published in the Ottawa Citizen remixed to feature Tom Wheeler

“Competition? We really don’t have any.” said Wheeler in another interview with the Ottawa Citizen in 1984.


The company fell just one year later, in 1985. As the IEEE put it, it was an “example of technology that did not succeed because society was not ready for it.”

Wheeler has been the star of headlines over the last year since being appointed as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission this past November. His tenure has been marred by the issue of Net Neutrality.


Wheeler’s stance on the matter still remains opaque. While posing as a grand defender of the movement through the speech he gave at the recent FCC hearing , he’s also been quoted as saying just the opposite at other instances. During his first speech as FCC Chairman at the University of Ohio, for example, he remarked that “Regulating the Internet is a non-starter. What the Internet does is an activity where policy makers must be judiciously prudent and should not be involved.” Needless to say, it's curious to see a man who was so forward thinking as Wheeler now have the fate of the Internet in his hands.

Julian Reyes is a VR Producer for Fusion.

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