3.2 Protocols

Primi passi
First steps
Marco Sommani
  • How many still remember the abbreviation PTT? … Postes Télégraphes et Téléphones.
  • It stood for the government agencies responsible for postal and telecommunications services.
  • In the 80s, all leading countries, with the exception of the U.S., had their own PTT.
  • In Italy we had the Ministry for Post and Telecommunications and its associated companies (SIP, ASST, Italcable, Telespazio…).
  • For about a century, the postal and telecommunications services were entirely under the control of the PTT.
  • This control extended to other apparatus: telephones, telex, fax, telephone exchanges, all were supplied and controlled by the PTT.
  • The first connections between terminals and computers were revolutionary in one way: the telephone network began to be used to communicate with apparatus not controlled by the PTT.
  • The monopolistic concept of telecommunications began to waver when user apparatus started being used not only to produce or receive information, but also for simple transfer of data: users began setting up networks, so that data produced by user A to be sent to user E passed, before arriving at its destination, through the apparatus of users B, C and D.
  • It became possible for organizations other than the national PTT to manage data transmission networks.
  • Little harm if they were used only within organizations. Little harm if they were only experimental networks, used by small communities of researchers.
  • More threatening, from the point of view of the PTT, were the networks controlled externally and used by several organizations, such as airline booking systems and interbank services.
  • Besides, most of the national postal systems did not have a data transmission network to provide an alternative: for example, in Italy ITAPAC was launched only in 1985 as an experimental service available in just a few towns.
  • Unable to compete on a technological level, the PTTs defended themselves with tariff policies, deciding that if a dedicated circuit was used to transmit data between organizations they would have to pay not only for renting the circuit, but also for the quantity of data transmitted.
  • Even though the first fees for volume were particularly exorbitant because based on comparisons with those for telegraphy and telex, the PTTs found little opposition from banks and airline companies, who transmitted small quantities of data and had no difficulty in paying.
  • The crunch came between 1983 and 1984, when, under the name of EARN, BITNET came to Europe, a network already widely used by north American universities.
  • EARN was not a packet switching network: it was more "file switching", because it was used to send files from sender to recipient and every file could pass, en route, through intermediary nodes, where it was temporarily stored in non-volatile memory.
  • According to the existing rules, users would have to pay, not only line-rental fees (very expensive at the time) but also the traffic by volume, paying, for the same file, for all of the circuits passed through.
  • No-one ever paid for EARN traffic, but for some years all parties concerned played along with the pretence that EARN would channel its traffic over PTT data lines as soon as this was technically possible and, in exchange for a declaration to this effect (which no-one believed), the PTTs asked for no payment for volume.
  • Over time, the PTTs sharpened their weapons. Opposing the networks also became anachronistic as a policy.
  • Some countries began privatizing telecommunications.
  • When a proposal to found the Internet Society was announced in Copenhagen in 1991 (by the way, at an EARN convention), the idea that the owners of the networks were the users and not the operating companies was no longer revolutionary.
  • The Internet network we know today, with no owners and open to all, is the fruit of resolute resistance by the academic worlds of the universities and research institutes to the monopoly operators of the 80s.
Happy Birthday ISOC