you're physically reading this blog entry within the state of Utah,
chances are the connection you're using is provided by XMission.
The local internet provider that's been going nearly seventeen years
now, before the web was found in every home and business. The
company itself provides thousands with as high grade a service as its
major competitors, while also maintaining a free system throughout
parts of downtown. And if not for one man behind it all, we probably
wouldn't have these options at all.
Pete Ashdown was originally one of the driving forces in the early 90's behind the rave movement, helping embed itself in local music and Utah culture. His drive to find innovative and unconventional forms of entertainment led him down the technological path and eventually had him starting up his own ISP. Not to mention the interesting move to run for the U.S. Senate a few years ago. I got a chance to chat with Pete in an extra-long interview about his time with the raves, starting up XMission, his Senate run, thoughts on the internet and technology, and a few other topics along the way. And for you, pictures of Pete! Lots of pictures of Pete.
Gavin: Hey Pete! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Pete: I am a lifelong computer nerd living out his dreams in Utah with three kids and a wife.
Gavin: What first got you interested in technology and did you do any experimenting with it in your youth?
Pete: My parents recalled how I was always taking apart the record player, the tape player, or any technology I could get my hands on. They say the biggest tantrum I ever had when I was a kid was after I spied a telephone toy with dials and buttons in a Salt Lake City department store. I wailed all the way home to Bountiful about it and wouldn't stop until my father went back and got it. It got hacked with until it was in pieces. Dad then built me version 2.0 which was made out of 1.2" plywood, had its own turntable that played wooden records with patterns, plus a dial controlled light-show. It is still in my childhood home. In elementary school, arcade video games started appearing in grocery stores and subsequently video game consoles appeared in the home. They were a huge occupation for me. Finally, when I was a teenager, I begged and cajoled my parents into buying an Apple ][. Hacking and disassembling the guts of that computer and it's software was more fun for me than any game made. It was on the Apple ][ that I also got introduced to telecommunications and what was possible with that. In 1985, I upgraded to the Commodore Amiga and spent the next five years taking that apart. I also managed to get my Amiga connected up as an early "UUCP" node on the Internet in 1987. What was great about the early home computers is that they were so much more open to experimentation than most of what comes off the line today. They were also vastly simpler.
Gavin: Originally you went to SLCC and then to the U to study film. What made you want to pursue filmmaking, and how was it for you at both colleges?
Pete: I was very intimidated by the requirements for Computer Science and didn't really think I could do it. I had always been a fan of film, and computer animation was in an embryonic stage, so I figured maybe I could go that route and be useful.
Gavin: What eventually made you transfer into computers and technology as your major?
Pete: I was in the film program for a few years when I had a hard realization that I was in the wrong department and I switched to Computer Science. I was still studying that when I started XMission in 1993 and it took over my life. I had about a year left until my degree.
Gavin: Not many know the full details, but for a time you had a major hand in the club and rave scene in Salt Lake City, and were influential in bringing that music and culture to the city. How did you first find out about it, and how did you go about bringing it here?
Pete: In 1990, I was working at Evans & Sutherland and studying Computer Science at the University of Utah. Both had "realtime" connections to the Internet, which offered a lot of other useful tools, precursors to the web of today. I participated on a number of music mailing lists, mainly geared for the burgeoning Industrial Music scene and other new music. There was this rumbling about electronic music artists like nothing before that described all night parties in the English countryside and abandoned warehouses. I couldn't find any of the music mail-order, but my friend John Webster took a trip to Boston and picked up a bunch of titles I asked him to look for at Newbury Comics. I was hooked. Electronic music was something I had always enjoyed on my Amiga, and artists like The Orb, Orbital, and Eon were taking it to another level. John and I both rented out a space in Exchange Place, not far from where XMission is today, and setup some enormous speakers with a DJ system. I DJ'ed the entire night and I think most people really enjoyed it. We did something on the order of twenty more raves from 1990 to 1994 until it wasn't fun anymore. Part of the thrill was introducing others to the concept and the music. That newness faded pretty fast.
Gavin: What was it like for you personally to have played a part in it during that period?
Pete: Some have described me as the godfather of Utah raves. I really wasn't trying to be out front on that. It was more an effort to have fun than anything else. A third partner with me and John, Grant Davis, went on to become a VJ that travels the world and he loves it, but I started enjoying getting a full night's sleep, and XMission also demanded much more time from me.
Gavin: I've read that you never encouraged use of or took any drugs during that period and it eventually made you quit going. How was it for you to leave, and what's your take on that scene and how its progressed over the years since?
Pete: I made a lot a friends during those days and sadly have seen a few die in accidents and overdoses. It was never about drugs for me, but rather the music, the technology, and the visuals. I don't doubt there were all sorts of stimulants at our raves, but we had to mind the cash box and being loaded isn't a good idea if you want to make your investment back. Even when I went to other raves, I spent more time enjoying the artistry of the whole night than going for drugs. I traveled to California a lot to see artists like Pete Namlook and The Irresistible Force play, it was about the art for me. I wanted to be fully present. As far as the scene today, I really have no idea. There are a few of the people who work at XMission who DJ and go to the different raves and parties and they like it a lot. I won't cast judgment in some sort of "old school" fashion and say it was better when I was doing it. All it was, was a different scene. Today may be just as exciting for people involved with it today.
Gavin: How did you eventually get the job with Evans & Sutherland, and what was that experience like working for the company at the time?
Pete: I applied three times to get a job there and it was like my dream-job at the beginning. I worked there over the course of four years and learned a lot about networking, UNIX, and the Internet. It became apparent though that the management did not have a viable longterm plan for the company. There was a "brainstorming" session they asked all the teams to help decide company direction. I said at the time that we needed to stop being dependent on military contracts and look for commercial/consumer opportunities. Needless to say, my idea wasn't executed on, and as E&S lost military contracts, the size of the company dwindled through attrition and lay-offs. Many of the people involved with E&S went on to start other successful graphics and game companies, and of course, I left to start XMission. The experience taught me a lot about corporate culture and what I didn't want to participate in or create in the future.
Gavin: What persuaded you to eventually branch out on your own and start a company?
Pete: My boss kept telling me to get back to work and quit wasting time on the Internet! Seriously though, I had no facility for using the Internet at home, even though I could use it at work and school. I figured there were others like me and there was a pending need for home Internet access.
Gavin: Where did the idea come from to start an internet service provider? And where did the title XMission come from?
Pete: Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) had long been a staple of my time at home. Using the Internet in the early 90's was like stepping in the future of what a BBS could be. Getting a response to an email from Australia within seconds was a real eye-opener for me. I knew that this was something other BBS users would pay for, because I would. There were about a dozen other ISPs around the country at the time. I modeled much of the business off one in San Jose who responded to my emails. Computers picked up a couple of abbreviations from the military, XFER and XMIT for "transfer" and "transmit". XMission is "transmission". Over the years, I have heard a number of people give me different interpretations and I tell them that its whatever they want it to be.
Gavin: What was it like getting set up and functional, and where there any major issues along the way or was it pretty smooth sailing?
Pete: At first the University of Utah had some second thoughts about selling me bandwidth, because they'd never encountered a situation where someone would then be reselling it down the line. I gently convinced them into a long lasting partnership. The original location was in the phone closet of a friend's clothing store, and when she went out of business, I was transferred to a salon who I had a lot of problems with. There have always been problems and challenges, some more serious than others, but I doubt I've seen them all.
Gavin: When you officially launched how was it keeping everything running day-to-day and meeting the demand? And did you find a large consumer base at first or were you fighting for users?
Pete: Things went better than I guessed in my business plan when I opened doors in 1993, but it wasn't until 1995 when business really exploded. I was able to do all the management, accounting, and tech support by myself up until 1995. Because XMission was the first ISP in Utah, we became the defacto choice back then. Although we had as many as 80 competitors later, I built a reputation that people sought out for quality service.
Gavin: When the internet craze and the “.com boom” really started taking off, the demand in the U.S. shot through the roof. How were you able to handle it and what changes over the years have you made to the service to keep up with demand?
Pete: In 1995, XMission couldn't keep up with the demand and I mistakenly instituted a waiting list which haunted us for years after we didn't need it anymore. I learned that if you're ever overwhelmed with customers, raise your prices. We haven't encountered a need to do that since and have been able to stay ahead of the curve with sufficient bandwidth and facilities.
Gavin: Considering the service you provide, how do you deal with hackers and identity theft over your system? And how do you combat them from attacking your users?
Pete: Proactive system patching, redundant firewalls, and a robust backup system just in case. Anyone of our size on the Internet is going to have problems with intruders sooner or later, because no security system is 100%. The fact that we have subscribers who can unknowingly be duped into emailing their password to a stranger is one of the bigger problems we have lately. We have a number of strategies for combating those emails and blocking them from being responded to, but it all comes down to vigilance and assuming we aren't protected.
Gavin: What made you choose downtown for the main hub location and how has it been over the years being stationed on 4th South?
Pete: In late 1994, I got a call from Vasillios Priskos. He told me that he was starting a commercial real estate agency and his marketer said he should call it "Internet Properties". The reason he called me is that he now needed to understand what the Internet was. I went and met with him in his office and told him that I needed some space to open an office of my own, because up until that time I had done most of the administrative work out of my apartment, with the equipment in the aforementioned closet. He had some space and XMission has been his tenant ever since. I really like being downtown, primarily because I live less than two miles away from work and can walk if I want, but also because downtown has much more character, good food, and entertainment than a business park off I-15.
Gavin: One of the big milestones for you was running against Orrin Hatch back in 2006 for his Senate seat. What first persuaded you to run and what was it like for you being a politician during that time?
Pete: Senator Hatch made a comment in 2003 about the possibility of computers having a killswitch that could be engaged if they violated copyright. I found the comment ignorant as a technologist, embarrassing as a Utahn, and shameful as an American. I wrote him telling him that I would do whatever I could to see him unseated in 2006. When 2005 rolled around, I started seriously thinking about what that meant. In the end it meant running for office. Being a politician was a big challenge for me, for most of my life had been spent behind a computer screen. It is easy to spout opinion online, it is much harder to get out and speak and try to convince others in person. Moving from introvert to extrovert was difficult, but it made me a better listener and a better person. Running for offices was one of the best decisions I ever made and I am always encouraging others to do the same, no matter their background. What also was surprising to me was that as the campaign evolved it became less about Senator Hatch and more about what I could do in Washington. The ideals of accountability, transparency, and being connected with government are all facilitated through the skills I have learned building an Internet provider.
Gavin: The result at the end was a loss, but you've been one of the strongest candidates against Hatch in years. What were your thoughts after losing the race, and would you ever run again?
Pete: I was "in it to win it" and I really thought there was a chance. There was a brief period when the early vote came in and it showed me at 56% that I lost my breath, but in the end it wasn't so. 31% was fair for someone who started with 0% name recognition, but closing that 20% gap would have required more time and more money. I spent some time looking at other senate results around the country and was happy to see that I wasn't dead last on fundraising, or percentage points in challenging an incumbent. I did okay with the results, but in Utah you have to run several times if you align yourself with the Democrats. I want to run again. I wish I was running this year. I didn't feel it was responsible to leave my business in the midst of this bad economy.
Gavin: A big project you undertook was to provide sections of downtown SLC with free wireless internet, as well as non-profit organizations. What made you choose to do that and how has it worked out for both those businesses and XMission in the longrun?
Pete: XMission has a flat donation policy of up to $50 in service to any 501c3. I started this early on and found that it was a good way to give back to the community, which then in turn brings us loyal customers. If we support an organization that an individual supports, they are more likely to be and stay a customer because of that. Free wireless worked out because it is an inexpensive investment and does a lot to spread our brand. I look at it as advertising more than a give-away. I'd actually like to do a lot more of it, but budget wise it isn't a priority right now.
Gavin: Something you're recently done is change the front wall of the XMission building to a LCD tube display. Why did you change it and how has the reaction been to that?
Pete: The LCD tube display fronts the XMission Data Center which was established in 2000. When that building was renovated, it was around the time ZCMI was getting rid of their Christmas displays. Although XMission isn't a department store, I thought I would do our part in making our streetview interesting and dynamic. Up until last year, we had "pods" and lighting that was designed by an art director, Mark Hoflinger. After nearly a decade of that running, I wanted something that we could control dynamically. The suggestion was made to buy several plasma screens, but I felt like that was very ordinary. I started looking into LCD tubes which I'd seen used at concerts for The Police and Nine Inch Nails. The American company that most people use for that wanted over half a million dollars to install a system the size of the display window. I did some hunting around and found a Chinese supplier that would sell to us directly for a sliver of a fraction of that price. The only drawback was the documentation and software were horrible. Teaming up with another hardware-hacking employee, we spent most of 2009 installing and reverse engineering their software. It still needs a bit of tweaking, but I'm happy with the result. It is unique and eye-catching. I've had a number of people tell me that they like the new display. My son really enjoys it, so that is a big win for me.
Gavin: You've set up a contest recently to allow people to put a video display inside it. Tell is a bit about that and what people can expect to see over the coming weeks.
Pete: Most of what you see on the display now are traditional UNIX/Linux screen hacks and/or video loops that I or other XMission employees have come up with. I had the idea of having a contest to see what people could do with 171x32 pixels, but we haven't had any entries! Maybe all the graphic designers have iPads and don't need to win another one, but I'm hoping your blog stirs some interest.
Gavin: With the influx of tech going the way it is, are you looking to make any new improvements to the service or system, or will you simply play-by-ear as things change?
Pete: Any business in the tech industry has to evolve or they're going to be left by the wayside. If I had stuck with what I started in 1993, I'd be out of business today. We've launched a new hosting system at Stackable.com, which I believe is better than any form of scalable web hosting available today, anywhere, but our challenge is penetrating a national and hopefully an international market where XMission hasn't done much work before.
Gavin: Going local for a bit, what's your take on the way service is provided to Utah, and what improvements do you believe we need to make?
Pete: Our two biggest competitors on residential access service are Qwest and Comcast. Comcast has never allowed us to participate in selling service on their infrastructure and Qwest is gradually locking us out. The only growth we're seeing in providing access to the Internet is on the UTOPIA network and it has its own set of financial challenges right now. I fear that unless this country sees data as infrastructure and starts supporting open municipal networks for Internet providers, we're going to see a situation much like what has happened with cell phones. Few choices, high prices, and poor service. All data, voice, and video providers should be regulated into using a single fiber network because it provides the most choice and competition to the consumer. It also makes more sense from a "tearing up the street" standpoint to coordinate that rather than have every provider out for their own interest. Sadly, this isn't the way things are going in the United States. Rather we're trusting corporations to make the best decision for the public rather than for their profits.
Gavin: Considering the way many local businesses and individuals have made use of the internet and its various outlets, what do you believe that has done for both the local exposure as well as our economy?
Pete: There is no doubt that the Internet is an essential driver of our economy today. The disappearance of our manufacturing base has given way to an information economy that depends upon good communication. I'm not an economist, and even if I was I think it is anyone's guess as to whether this is sustainable. Unemployment numbers currently show otherwise. I read last week that even Silicon Valley and the Bay area is showing 9% unemployment. I believe we need a variety of robust sectors to have a robust economy. We can't put all our eggs in one basket.
Gavin: Is there anything tech-wise you wish we had here in SLC or Utah in general? Or something you wish a local organization or company would do along those lines?
Pete: Without naming names, I have been dismayed that every time a bad Internet bill comes up at the legislature, the industry group remain mostly silent on it. I spent a lot of time this last session fighting a bill that requires ISPs to hand over customer information to law enforcement without a warrant, which is otherwise easily obtained. It is flatly unconstitutional. Yet the lobbying group that represents technology companies in Utah did not take a stand on it. Yet when some GOP pet-project like vouchers rolls around, they're the first in line. I wish there was an independent organization that stood up for Internet freedom and liberty like what the Electronic Frontier Foundation does on a national basis. I don't have the time to start one myself, but I would certainly be a supporter.
Gavin: I briefly have heard you speak about Net Neutrality and what both companies and the government are doing to hinder or increase it. What do you believe should be done to protect that?
Pete: The FCC should be given teeth to effectively slap companies that violate net-neutrality for anti-competitive or political reasons. As far as economic reasons go, Comcast should be free to throttle their subscribers how they wish, but their subscribers should be able to jump ship to another provider easily. This goes back to municipal fiber and increasing consumer choice. However, this isn't the current direction we're heading.
Gavin: With the internet progressing as it has over the years, where do you see us being five years from now, both tech and system wise?
Pete: Video rental stores are disappearing, and I can see all of our media delivery converging to the Internet. Even what is carried on HD BluRay will eventually be available at same and/or better quality online. Sony is starting to roll out 4K projection and I'm sure we're going to see that replace existing HDTV's eventually. This will all push bandwidth demand to a breaking point in the U.S. because we're simply not adequately expanding our fiber infrastructure for the looming future. I've seen XMission's own connection grow from 1.5 Megabit to 23 Gigabit and it will continue expanding as long as we're in operation. Individuals who think that what they've got now is sufficient for the next decade are fooling themselves. I don't see many people reverting to dialup connections. We're also going to see the Internet fade as a visible infrastructure. In that, it simply just be a part of our lives like electricity. People won't think about "getting on the Internet" to get showtimes, their phone or pad or refrigerator will simply use the Internet transparently to give them that information.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and the company over the rest of the year?
Pete: Although I'd love to spill my hopes for expansion, I have long kept a tight lip about future projects until we have something concrete to launch. XMission is continuing to expand its latest project Stackable and refine our existing services to make them easier for customers to use.
Gavin: Aside the obvious, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Pete: My personal website, from the front page, I have links to mailing lists, and my Twitter and Facebook feeds. If you have any interest about technology and Utah, I promise I won't waste your time with a lot of noise. I also started a non-profit last year, The Electroregeneration Society. We take decommissioned computers, erase and re-purpose them for other non-profits and people in need. If we can't use them, we strip them for the bare materials and make sure they're recycled properly. The organization can use volunteers and financial help.
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