- A few
Internet memories, after 20 years…
- It was
1986, a few months into my career as UN international staff in Brazil,
when two events dramatically changed and really redirected my future: the
arrival of a brand new IBM AT that was installed in a dedicated room just
in front of my office and, through it, the discovery of Computer Networks.
where, at the time, a mesh of interoperable protocols and not well connected
systems. Through the discovery of a Hayes 300 modem, that in just a couple
of week I was able to configure and connect to the X.25 Brazilian network,
and meeting a group of West Coast "technology freaks", some of
them Xerox Parc dropouts, who had decided to change the world bringing
peace and environmental awareness through the world using the power of
- Less than
two years later, I found myself in New York with the responsibility, among
others, to manage a small project aimed to bring the Internet in developing
countries. It's very difficult to understand what I mean if you didn't
go through those old, good times.
- We were
still far away from the WWW and many networks were fiercely competing with
the Internet, either academic networks such as Bitnet, supported by IBM,
corporate networks like DECnet and others, or the "official"
ones, such as X.25, that, even then, we considered it as old as dinosaur.
In those times an international dedicated 64 Kb satellite link could cost
up to 50.000 US$, a sum only a few organizations could afford to pay; none
of them, for sure, coming from developing countries.
- It was
therefore mandatory to look for creative solutions, such as sharing an
existing connection: in Ecuador, the owner of the local "Pacific Bank",
whose son was saved in USA by a doctor who gathered information about his
health situation using the network, allowed access to Ecuadorian Internet
"activists" to use the link the bank had from Ecuador to Florida
at night, when it was not in use for bank's business.
- In Bolivia,
the whole country shared a satellite link with the local UN office, which
had the possibility of using the entire 64Kb when telephone lines were
not busy. In other cases, we had to use the "guerrilla approach"
of installing PCs with the UNIX operating system and UUCP protocol, that
together with a fantastic Telebit modem allowed us efficient mail exchange
over international dial-up, even over poor quality lines.
- Of course
this allowed only mail exchange, but for us it was more than enough since
we implemented email gateways that would even allow remote database access,
such as the National Library of Medicine of Bethesda National Health Institute:
with three or four emails, one could possibly expect to receive within
a couple of days an entire article otherwise impossible to find in hardcopy
in a developing country.
- One day
I received in my office the visit of Larry Landweber.
- He had
heard of my work and he considered me the "Johnny Appleseed"
of the Internet since I was going all around the world "seeding"
the network like Johnny used to do with apples centuries ago.
was working on his then famous "Map of the Internet" and he was
looking forward to add new countries to it: nothing better than looking
for emerging countries, then, since they were almost completely missing
on his map.
- He invited
me to join INET91 to be held in Copenhagen, where I offered to organize
an event dedicated to developing countries.
- He then
put me in touch with Stefano Trumpy who, through a strange coincidence,
was also Italian and was working to bring Internet mainly to Africa.
were exciting times indeed! Larry introduced me to the Gotha of the Internet:
Vint Cerf, Dave Farber and many others, as well as introducing me to maecenas
like Eric Benhamou, of 3Com, and others.
- One day,
a few months ahead of the Copenhagen event, he appeared to my office with
an envelope with 25.000$ cash in it: it was money to be used to bring to
INET91 our "boys" from Central and South America.
- I had
just to write down the expensed in a notebook and that's it. Quite amazing;
almost a dream for somebody like me who was working with the UN and was
used to deal with the worst bureaucracy to even spend a penny!
- Me and
Stefano had several meetings together and started working in great synergy,
even if he had chance to do thinks well beyond our possibilities, such
as funding dedicated satellite links, thanks to resources available from
a pretty large UNESCO project funded by the Italian government.
still I had to go around the world carrying computers and cheap used Telebit
Trailblazer modems I found in old warehouses in Silicon Valley.
- One of
the biggest rewards was for me "bringing" the Internet to Cuba
in '91. I went with Ted Hope, a US born friend living in Costa Rica.
- We met
in Miami to take a direct flight to Havana we never thought existed: an
American Airlines plane and crew chartered by a travel agency leaving Miami
for Havana at 5am when the airport was completely empty.
- And there
we where, with our Telebit modems and a Sony portable workstation weighting
almost ten kilos. Amazing enough: everything was fully declared to the
US customs before leaving the country.
- We enjoyed
a warm reception from CENIAI, the arm of the Cuban Science Academy responsible
for communication. We found a couple of IMB compatible computers and Ted
started working at once, quickly installing UNIX Interactive, as our almost
astonished friends from CENIAI learned that there was no need to write
an email program from scratch, as they were doing at the time, but they
could use the one that was already built in our UNIX distribution.
- Of course
we knew that, at the time, that UNIX export was actually officially restricted.
After a couple of days mail was flowing (almost) easily thanks to a UUCP
- A server
would call twice a day from Canada - on International dial-up was then
available from Cuba, neither from USA to the island - and when we were
lucky all mail was moving in and out. Around the same time something happened
showing how difficult those times really were.
one of my frequent trips to Costa Rica I received a phone call from the
UN representative in that country.
- By coincidence,
he was Italian too and a good friend of mine. He enquired about what I
had been doing during my last visit to the country, and I replied that
I just met some people from the academia and some NGOs to support the startup
of the network in the country.
- He had
received a call from the Ministry of Science and Technology explicitly
telling him not to let me back into the country because I was trying to
bring some strange useless technology into the country they were not interested
in at all.
- This project
aimed to connect Costa Rica to the world and this technology was the Internet.
- In the
meantime INET91 was a big success: Stefano and myself we brought a large
number of "agitators" who, after their training in Copenhagen,
went back to their countries acting as real missionaries, or better, as
the big success of INET91 fund raising for INET92 to be held in Kobe, Japan,
- This time
there was no need to get the envelope full of cash since George Sadowsky,
from New York University, offered his support to manage the resources needed
for this event.
years have passed from that INET92. After that the Internet development
acquired a completely different dimension: the age of pioneers was over
and the exponential growth of the Internet started, in part thanks to the
appearing of the WWW and of Mosaic, the first real Internet browser.
growth also fueled expansion after '95; slowly all telecom players stepped
in, starting from MCI who brought Vint Cerf again onboard after him leaving
the company in '86, or UUNET, what I personally consider the first real
ISP that deserves to be considered so and that quickly evolved from non-profit
providers of free UUCP services to a major IP services provider, well above
MCI and Sprint, before being acquired by WorldCom in '96.
- I then
decided to abandon what had been so far my active role in the Internet
growth, keeping in my memories the pride of having helped to support countries
like Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, and many others just to mention
a few, to build a team of young enthusiasts with enough knowledge and tools
to be able to build the core of the Internet in their countries.
- Or to
have supported NGOs and academic entities of other more developed countries
such as Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Costa Rica and others,
to do the same.
for a more democratic development of the network of what they could have
had if this would have completely been left in hands of Telecoms or governments.