the 12 days of christmas and days of internet past

As Christmas comes around again - for the 16th time now since the first internet-enabled Christmas of 1995 - I can't help but think about how both the internet and the Yukon itself have changed, and in many ways lost character since those heady and troubl

As Christmas comes around again – for the 16th time now since the first internet-enabled Christmas of 1995 – I can’t help but think about how both the internet and the Yukon itself have changed, and in many ways lost character since those heady and troubled days. Days that seem to me now as perhaps marking the Yukon’s last fling at being frontier territory.

Granted, waxing lyrical and elegiac about Christmases and internets of days of yore is risking being ridiculous, but bear with me. I am, as they say, going somewhere with this.

More through chance and circumstance than through any competencies of my own, I happened to find myself, in the mid 1990s until the early 2000s, in the mix of players who were establishing internet services in the Yukon.

The first “internet Christmas,” in fact, was the one of 1994 – though that was one experienced by only a few early, intrepid beta-testers, among whom I, with my poor little 2,800 baud modem, was too techno-impoverished to be found.

(For the record, the first day of real, public access internet in the Yukon was January 16, 1995, when the YukonNet Operating Society started taking payments and subscriptions in a barren room upstairs above Mac’s Fireweed Books.)

What followed was a series of always-exciting, but not-always -pleasant or positive, internet-related developments; developments that ended up, after a series of business births, growths, and extinctions, in the less eventful, over-priced, but more technologically and commercially stable internet we now enjoy (or tolerate) under the Northwestel de facto monopoly.

Amidst the menagerie of memories (sweet and bitter) from that period, the one I bring back to mind most often and most happily is the brief, now-forgotten tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas Give-Away” I got to preside over for about seven years as and employee, and later manager, of the now-defunct ISP company, YKnet.

Though I was usually the ad copy and public relations guy for the company, the idea for the Christmas give-away was not mine. It was the brain child of our volunteer company president at the time, Steve Rose.

He came up with the notion of using the traditional 12 days of Christmas as a time for YKnet to randomly select 12 of its customers – one on each of the 12 days – for a month of free internet access.

This was not intended as any kind of loss leader to increase sales; it was, pure and simple, a gesture of customer appreciation. But it from the first turned out to be a tremendous public relations success, and, moreover, a genuine morale booster for our staff of three people – myself as the manager, my accounts clerk/receptionist and my telephone customer support person.

Since we were in the business of providing internet access to all the communities in the territory (only one other company competed with us for awhile outside of Whitehorse), we quickly evolved a rule to make sure that the presents were equitably spread around.

Thus, no less than four of the free months of service had to go to our rural subscribers, since they constituted about a third of our overall customer base.

In addition, like any company charging a monthly rate for a service (our fee was $24.95 a month), we had our share of deadbeats and chronic late-payers. So we evolved the rule that you were not eligible to win the prize if you were owing more than the current month’s fee.

Winners who passed muster on both those counts were notified by email of their good fortune, and their name and community were listed on our company web page, one new entry per day between Dec. 14 to Dec. 25. Usually, I would make a personal call to the customer, too, to congratulate him or her.

The selection process was accomplished in gloriously nerdy fashion, with me using percentile dice from my Dungeons and Dragons game to generate the day’s random customer number from our billing software, and my accounts clerk at her computer calling out if that customer was an a qualified winner.

Though $25, even in those days, was not a particularly large amount of money, the event drew a lot of attention and excitement from our customers, and had two spin-off benefits that had not been envisaged to begin with, but which factored in a small way into our keeping up the tradition: Our home page got many extra hits over those 12 days from the expectant or curious; and we saw an increase in people settling up accounts in arrears.

The internet was a pretty rough and tumble business, in those days, with as many as six companies competing for customers – a situation that meant cheaper prices, but also real difficulties maintaining decent service levels, since nobody had the critical mass to make any real money.

It was a competitive situation, in fact, that ultimately allowed Northwestel, with its deeper pockets and control of the phone lines, to defeat all the competitors in detail, and establish the regional monopoly it has to today – not, in the long run, a healthy state of affairs for the Yukon, but also nothing particular to us, either, since the telcos and cable television companies have established internet hegemony across the continent.

Still, faulty and unsustainable as they were, those were days when the internet in the Yukon still had a personal touch, and I got to be part of a group providing that touch.

I am not much of a Christmas kind of guy, but those 12 days of Christmas remain for me a cherished, albeit deeply nerdy, Christmas memory.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie who lives in Whitehorse.