From PNETS to outer space

Charles Mok
Telecom Asia

In 1990, I was entering the third year of my working life, at the second largest computer company in the world at the time: Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In 1990, I transferred within DEC from Massachusetts to California. Goodbye snow, hello Silicon Valley!   

Technology wise, the move from the Right Coast to the Left Coast also meant that I could give up my development machine - a PDP computer running the RSX operating system over DECnet - to help DEC market their new Unix and TCP/IP-based workstations and servers. Surely such hardware - if we could still find working examples today - would be a great addition to any science or technology museums anywhere in the world. 

By 1990, I had been using the Internet for almost a decade, since I was a freshman in 1992. We had been using text-based terminals over Unix systems for emails and newsgroups, and by the early 1990s we were ready to switch to a GUI with X Windows and the World-Wide Web.

The 1990s was the age of the commercialization of the Internet. From the days when the Internet was only for those at universities or large tech companies, now almost anyone could “get online” by subscribing to an ISP.    

The PNETS saga

In 1994, I returned from the US to Hong Kong, and ended up starting one of the earlier ISPs here. We thought: let’s call it Hong Kong Net - hence HKNet. So we thought: should we get a license? What license should we get? What kind of telecom service was it? We ended up getting a PNETS (Public Non-Exclusive Telecommunications Service) license before our operation was ready, but then something drastic happened before we rolled out our dial-up Internet access service.

In March 1995, the Office of Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) and the Commercial Crime Bureau (CCB) of the Royal Hong Kong Police conducted a raid on most of the ISPs in Hong Kong that were “operating without licenses” at the time, shutting down their services and confiscating their servers and other equipment.

ISPs demanded to know what happened. Among other things, it was unclear what OFTA licenses might be needed. To put things right, the First Great Internet Shutdown of Hong Kong was rectified within days, the ISPs’ machines were released, and soon afterward they got the PNETS licenses that OFTA finally decided they would need.

This entire ordeal was the foundation of the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association - which I co-founded with other ISPs, including many of those affected by the shutdown. We went on to develop codes of conduct with the government on various matters including the handling of obscene and indecent materials online, and spam emails.

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