4.2 America Latina, Nazioni Unite e l' Internet Society
4.2 Latin America , United Nations and the Internet Society
Enzo Puliatti
  • 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.
  • These 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 computer networks.
  • 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.
  • Quite a success!
  • 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.
  • Larry 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.
  • Those 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.
  • While 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 dial-up connection.
  • 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.
  • After 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 "agit-prop".
  • After the big success of INET91 fund raising for INET92 to be held in Kobe, Japan, started.
  • 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.
  • Twenty 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.
  • Commercial 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.
  • Allowing 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.
Happy Birthday ISOC