Toasternets were an early-1990s instantiation of the decentralized Internet, featuring open-standards-based federated services, radical decentralization, ad-hoc routing and consisting of many small individual and collective networks rather than a cartel of large commercial Internet Service Provider networks. Today's "community networks" and decentralized social networks are the closest modern inheritors of the ethos of the 1991-1994 era Toasternets.
The first known use of the word was by Robert Ullmann, then active in the Internet Engineering Task Force developing next-generation Internet addressing and routing protocols. He circulated two documents, entitled Toasternet Part I (December 1989) and Toasternet Part II (March 1992) on the IETF mailing list, and then published RFCs 1475 and 1476 and the "CATNIP" Internet-Draft in June 1993.
Early toasternet proponent Tim Pozar described them thus:
"A Toasternet is an Internet-connected computer network built very cheaply so as to have a cost that a small business, school or individual can afford. It has been joking said that these networks are so cheap, you can connect everything in sight, including your toaster. Generally speaking, most Toasternets exist to meet a group's or individual's communications needs, rather than profit as a motive."
Pozar, and other early toasternet builders Bill Woodcock and John Gilmore were participants in the cooperative The Little Garden, the first Internet service provider based on the west coast of the United States. Founded and led by Tom Jennings, The Little Garden (named for the Vietnamese restaurant where its foundational meetings were held) was an Internet Service Provider network built between 1992 and 1996 in the toasternet ethos, and consisting of constituent toasternet members; some individual, and some collective. Many of the initial Little Garden members went on to become founding members of Packet Clearing House, the not-for-profit which now supports core Internet infrastructure globally, but still continues to promulgate the toasternet values of collaborative competition and "permissionless" new market entry.
Writing contemporaneously in Wired, Jonathan Steuer said,
"Toasternets are not actually comprised of toasters and network cable. Rather, the term "toasternet" refers generically to small computer networks built out of cheap and readily available parts. Unlike commercial network service providers, who are motivated primarily by their bottom line, most toasternets exist to meet their members' communication needs -- to get people wired. Toasternets have become increasingly popular as demand for Internet services has outpaced the capabilities of commercial service providers."
Gareth Bronwyn, also writing in Wired in 1993, defined them much more haphazardly, saying that they used "Cheap Internet routers made with old PCs" and coining the umbrella term "grunge computing."
It is worthy of note that, prior to the 1992 privatization of the Internet via Al Gore's National Information Infrastructure plan, the operation of toasternets was not actually legal, since Internet connectivity was supplied to authorized parties (generally defense contractors and research universities) by, and at the expense of, the US Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and toasternets extended access to the network beyond the parties authorized to use it.
Many people also linked the name with a much more literal demonstration of SNMP-enabled toasters which had been connected to an Ethernet network by network management software vendor Epilogue, which caught the public's fancy at the time, and received some press coverage.
Toasternets are private, independent Internet-connected networks that spring up in basements, closets, wherever there's space. They are built by individuals, often, using bizarre mixtures of mismatched hardware and software. Prototype high-speed routers and network hardware nestle comfortably among antiquated UNIX hosts built from ten-year-old discarded parts; alpha-test software runs on machines salvaged from junkyards and dumpsters. Macintoshes run ported PC software; PCs run one-of-a-kind operating systems. Many toasternets seem at first like hellish tangles of junk, unlikely to work at all. Fact is, the intensity of competition, the rate of propagation, and the great variety of methods and combinations have created a form of electronic Darwinism. Software, protocols, and routing algorithms are born, fan out over the net, and disappear, prey to faster, more reliable, more portable new generations. Toasternets are a hothouse for technological standards, and we all profit from the resulting hybrid vigor.
By creating a decentralized network, you have no favored sites, and there's less emphasis on one platform over another. It'd be a bit like the ancient (in digital terms) idea of a toasternet, which strings together various computers to create network access among users, that attempts to circumvent internet service providers by becoming its own gateway.
It reminds me a lot of Fidonet, Tom Jennings' classic BBS networking infrastructure that linked millions of people around the world by programming local dial-up BBSes to call one another during off-peak/low-tariff hours and swap messages destined for one another, or more distant nodes. Fidonet eventually got a bridge into Usenet (thanks to trailblazing San Francisco ISP The Little Garden) that supercharged it in much the way of Scuttlebutt's pubs.
The first version of this memo, describing a possible next generation of Internet protocols, was written by the present author in the summer and fall of 1989, and circulated informally, including to the IESG, in December 1989. A further informal note on the addressing, called "Toasternet Part II", was circulated on the IETF mail list during March of 1992.
A Toasternet is an Internet-connected computer network built very cheaply so as to have a cost that a small business, school or individual can afford. It has been joking said that these networks are so cheap, you can connect everything in sight, including your toaster. Generally speaking, most Toasternets exist to meet a group's or individual's communications needs, rather than profit as a motive.
Toasternets are not actually of [sic] toasters and network cable. Rather, the term "toasternet" refers generically to small computer networks built out of cheap and readily available parts. Unlike commercial network service providers, who are motivated primarily by their bottom line, most toasternets exist to meet their members' communication needs: to get people wired. Toasternets have become increasingly popular as demand for Internet services has outpaced the capabilities of commercial service providers. This is particularly true in the area of full-time direct IP connectivity -- even providers that charge a flat rate for dialup shell connections usually have hourly charges for direct IP services like SLIP or PPP (see Netsurf 2.04). In addition, since toasternets operate by cooperative agreement, they are typically free of the restrictions on content or on the resale of service often imposed by commercial providers.
Toasternet: Cheap Internet routers made with old PCs. May have been inspired by the Video Toaster desktop editing device for the Amiga, or by that ubiquitous home appliance. "Grunge Computing" has been proposed as a general term for the re-purposing of old PCs and other trashed digital technology.
Some of my fondest memories date back to the early 90's when, at Interop in San Jose, a company called Epilogue demonstrated how the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) wasn't just for managing routers and other network gear. To prove SNMP's versality, Epilogue showed how it could be used to manage other devices too. Like toasters. John Romkey described the early days of TCP/IP, network management, and the birth of ToasterNet: 'If you put bread in the toaster, and set a variable in SNMP, the toaster would start toasting. There was a whole MIB written up for it, including how done you wanted the toast, and whether it was a bagel or Wonderbread. In order to figure out a matrix of how long to toast a bagel or Wonderbread to get it done to a specific doneness, I ended up with lots and lots of bread in my garage.'