How much did it cost to set up an 8 modem BBS in the mid 80's?
June 19, 2015 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Trying to get an idea of the cost in both money and time to set up an 8 modem BBS in 1987. Anecdotal evidence would be useful. Thank you!
posted by Alex Goldman to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Modems were pricey when the came out, especially the Hayes smart ones that could do auto-answer and whatnot. By 87, there were clones and could be had for around $250 each.

Some of the comments on this old list suggest that a decent BBS might have cost around $3K (for the PC alone) to outfit and run. Add in the modems, phone lines and BBS software and I bet you're closer to 5K, not including the monthly phone bills. In the early days, a lot of folks hand-rolled their own software (I remember one in particular that was written in CP/M for other CP/M users), but commercial BBS packages (Wildcat was one) got pretty common before they all started fading away.
posted by jquinby at 6:58 AM on June 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

jquinby's breakdown seems pretty accurate to me. Most of the local multi-line BBS in my area were running TAG (because it was free software). In 1988, my single line BBS (running TAG) was about $2,500 for the computer (cobbled together from used and new parts), another $250-300 for the modem, and then $65 per month for the phone line - though I was in a rural area, so that may have impacted the line price (?).
posted by VioletU at 7:07 AM on June 19, 2015

Are you talking about a home system or an institutional/commercial system?

A common multi-line BBS configuration in 1987 that a home sysop would have implemented would have been a D-Dial. This system would have consisted of an Apple IIe and seven modem cards. You could also link another Apple to scale up and add more modems.

This 1985 text file lays out the costs of the computer hardware, the modems and the phone lines needed to run the system, the software licensing, and what work is necessary to set up and run a multi-line D-Dial.

The other posters had some expensive modems. By 1987, the cost of 2400 baud modems had dropped to under $100 unless you got a Hayes-brand or a new 9600 baud modem. (The modems mentioned in the text file were 1200 baud, and I believe those prices were accurate for the era. In 1989, I bought a similar 1200 baud modem for under $40, as prices had dropped even further.)

I should also mention that my experience is that the vast majority of hobbyist BBSes of that era were not multi-line systems.

For more institutional systems, costs varied widely depending on the types of hardware being used, and we'd probably need to know the kind of environment and the purpose of the BBS to estimate that out.
posted by eschatfische at 7:19 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I was specifically wondering about a FidoNet system - a home/non-institutional system.
posted by Alex Goldman at 7:26 AM on June 19, 2015

eschatfische makes a good point - the BBS's that had, say, 3 phone lines were standouts for sure. Nearly all of hobbyist were single-line deals. Here's a pretty complete rundown on the Atlanta BBS scene, and you'll notice that even the commercial boards for product support (Lotus, AMI) were single-line systems.

In the case of operating a FidoNet node, you might have to factor in the toll charges of dialing up a distant system for the mail transfer. There's a bit about that towards the bottom here.

those were the days...old fart mode activated
posted by jquinby at 7:35 AM on June 19, 2015

Gotcha. A FidoNet-connected 8-line system in 1987 would have probably been an IBM AT-compatible running TBBS and Binkleyterm, and not the kind of Apple II system linked to above.

TBBS was one of the few packages that allowed you to run multiple lines on a single individual machine while running a single instance of the software, as opposed to running a multitasker like Desqview or multiple physical nodes. There were licensing fees, but I don't know what those were, and unfortunately, I can't find a reference to it.

An AT-compatible would have cost between $1500-$3000. PC modems would indeed have been a bit more expensive than the old Apple II modems mentioned there: there's a wide variety of pricing in this 1987 PC magazine, but some vendors were selling Hayes-compatible 1200 baud modems for ~$110-$140, and 2400 baud in the $200-$250 range.

Of course, many multiline boards at that time were pretty unique, as there wasn't a lot of standardization. The multiline, Fido-connected, non-institutional board I'm most familiar with from that era used custom-written software on individual Z80 CP/M nodes, and I'm not even going to try to price that out.

I do want to stress that the number of home boards that were 8-line Fido boards in 1987 would be quite small. 8 lines was a lot. My impression is that there were thousands of Fido boards by that time, but the vast majority would be single line boards.
posted by eschatfische at 8:18 AM on June 19, 2015

Eight lines would have been more of a MajorBBS thing.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:33 AM on June 19, 2015

My companion ran 'The Beemer Board', western star hub for Fidonet, 3 phone lines, Hayes modems, PC multi daisy chained HD's. He accepted donations to offset the phone lines and software license purchases for the text based games. Probably about $5-6 k in equipment.
I don't know how many users but there were quite a few, and you had to stay on for hours if you downloaded anything.
posted by IpsoFacto at 9:57 AM on June 19, 2015

Eight lines would have been more of a MajorBBS thing.

True, but I don't think there were MajorBBSes connected to Fido in 1987. I seem to recall that coming later - there were add-ons available in the 90s, but this 1989 catalog of 3rd party software doesn't mention a Fido gateway, although a RelayNet gateway was available. That may be enough for the poster of the question.

(The catalog also has a totally rad advertisement for the best part of any Galacticomm system, Infinity Complex, on the back page. Just four hundred 1989 dollars! Totally worth it.)
posted by eschatfische at 11:03 AM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: This is all very illuminating. Thank you all for your help! I really just needed a ballpark, as fidonet finds its way into a forthcoming reply all story.
posted by Alex Goldman at 1:06 PM on June 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

nth that a multi-line system would have been pretty rare, not just because of the modem cost but the price of having 8 concurrent or 8 different phone lines coming into your house. Fancy local BBSes could have 2 (2!!!!) users plus the sysop online. Not to mention the few puny ones that were online only after 5pm. Because it was cheaper at night! (Plus, who the hell is online at 2pm? Why aren't they at school?)
posted by fiercekitten at 6:09 PM on June 19, 2015

AT&T Paradyne released the Dataport 14.4 around 1990 at a retail price of $555, but offered it to sysops on a special deal at $222. US Robotics also offered their Couriers at various discounted rates. Boca had the BocaBoard 16 available for $895 at around that time, which was arguably one of the cheapest ways to go beyond four or possibly six lines on the PC platform. The only common packages I can think of would have been TBBS or The Major BBS, as others have noted already, and Major BBS didn't support Fido at the time. I knew a few people had two lines running under DESQview where one line was for users who were downloading stuff so as not to hog the main line.

Actual greater-than-two multiline systems were uncommon but not rare, at least if you were in a metro area. Here in the Milwaukee area, we also had ExecPC, which took a different tack and ran discrete motherboards each hosting a single line, connected on a LAN, and I took the pragmatic approach and brought up a UNIX system which had no problem operating multiline. At about $14/month per line, it was a little over $100/month with all taxes and fees for seven lines, which was where that peaked.

I've got a pile of modems, some BocaBoards, and a copy of The Major BBS if anyone's feeling the urge to set up a retro BBS, haha. (No, seriously, I do have all that crap. But not the PC to run it!)
posted by jgreco at 6:34 PM on June 19, 2015

8 lines is a lot. We had 4 lines and the phone company wanted to charges as business rates (significantly higher) just based on number.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2015

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