The Internet: From ARPAnet to the NII

The Internet:
From ARPAnet to the NII

THE FIRST NOTIONS of an information highway began with the birth of the ARPAnet in 1969. Commission by the U.S. Department of Defense, ARPAnet was a communications network which allowed computers at distant locations to "talk" with each other in order to exchange military and national security data. With this new technology, the data from one computer could be put into an electronic "envelope" and then be addressed to another computer. The originating computer would then direct the envelope by way of the ARPAnet to the receiving site. This method of packaging and shipping electronic information became known as the Internet Protocol, or IP for short. If a computer had the software for implementing IP, it could conceivably talk to any other computer in the world, as long as that other computer had similar IP software and was on the ARPAnet.

In the years that followed, additional networks spread from defense research to general scientific and academic use. Universities and research groups began to develop in-house networks known as Local Area Networks, or LAN's. A LAN would connect one computer in an office or department with all other computers within the building. Using IP software, however, a LAN could connect with other LAN's - a network within a network, so to speak. For every LAN that joined onto a network, the number of individual users on-line increased dramatically.


BY THE 1980'S networking was fast becoming an established tool for scientific endeavors. In order to expand information access to the research community, the National Science Foundation established five supercomputer centers around the country. Powerful yet incredibly expensive, supercomputers would certainly increase scientific output by those who had access to it. But the ARPAnet was already bogged down by other users, so problems with bandwidth and bureaucracy prevented the NSF from connecting their new computers to the network. Having already invested millions of dollars into the project, the NSF decided to create a competing network, appropriately known as the NSFNET. The NSFNET would allow researchers to access the supercomputers by way of high-speed phone lines. To reduce the costs and increase the speed of the network, the NSFNET was divided into regional subnetworks; if a university wanted to join the network, it would connect directly to the geographically closest supercomputer, which would then route any data to the other supercomputer centers as needed.

NSFNET caught on quickly and universities around the country began to go "on-line." As networking appeared throughout academia, sectors of government and private industry developed their own networks using an expanded protocol now known as TCP/IP. TCP/IP spread like virtual wildfire not because it was considered the best method of shipping data from computer to computer - numerous protocols have come and gone over the years. Its success stemmed from the fact that it was one of the first proven methods of delivering data, and as the number of users with TCP/IP networking ability grew, the value of being connected to that number of users grew with it. Right now, for example, the number of new users of this meganetwork per month is over 100,000. And with the proliferation of this enormous collective of networks within networks, an international electronic community of research, special interest, and personal exchange continues to expand. Today, this international informational lattice is known as the Internet. It is the most popular computer network in the world, with an estimated 12 million users, from scientists to curiosity seekers.

The Internet is totally decentralized; that is, the thousands of local networks are managed and paid for locally. The Internet network itself - the mesh of dedicated telephone lines that connect all of these networks - is owned by no one, but used by all. It is governed, however, by the Internet Society (ISOC), a voluntary international collective of researchers, academics and users who determine the future of the network. Within the Society is the Internet Architecture Board, the IAB. The main function of the IAB is to maintain the Internet through the creation and enforcement of international networking standards, as well as to make sure that no two users have the same Internet address.

It should be noted, though, that the Internet has never been the only established network. For many years, thousands of users accessed other services - the university-focused network BITNET was one of the most popular, for example. But over time, BITNET became absorbed into the Internet as it eventually adopted TCP/IP for its data transmission. In an attempt to compete with the Internet, though, some companies have created what are known as commercial on-line subscription services. For a monthly fee, anyone with a computer and a modem can connect to a commercial service such as America On-Line or Prodigy. Commercial services cater their offerings for personal uses, such as at-home shopping and investing, weather reports and airline reservations. To augment their attractiveness to prospective subscribers, most commercial services now include World Wide Web connectivity and Internet-accessible email. So when AOL began offering web access to its users in 1995, the number of Internet users skyrocketed. So, it is from these two converging paths - the non-commercial free-way of the Internet and the commercial toll-way of subscription services, that we develop the basic notions of the information highway.

The Advent of the Information Highway

AS THE SUCCESS of the Internet and other networks services became readily apparent, leading players of the telecommunications industry (especially cable providers and the local Bell Telephone companies) came up with a stunning realization. The nation is almost completely "networked" in terms of telephone and cable lines - why not use these wires for more than just conversations and one-way broadcasting? With an additional, although hefty, investment in networking technology and services, this pre-existing network structure could be used as the building blocks of an entirely new system, one which would allow users all over the country to exchange data, video, music, information, and anything else they could think of, in real time. The various telecommunication technologies of the present - telephones, TV's, fax machines, etc., would all converge into a singular, computer-driven system. This meganetwork of networks and new technology became known as the Information Highway (other transportation metaphors, such as the Superhighway, I-Way, Infobahn, etc. are also common). But many people have found these nicknames to be romantic, if not misleading, monikers used more to capture attention rather than convey an accurate image of this network. In order to avoid the confusion caused by such rhetoric-ladened metaphors, the U.S. government officially adopted a new name instead - The National Information Infrastructure, or NII.

The official clarion call for the development of the NII was sounded publicly in September, 1993 with the release of the NII report, Agenda for Action. Sponsored by the Clinton Administration and authored by its Information Infrastructure Task Force, Agenda for Action was the first official "vision" of what the NII should look like. Although vague in terms of method and planning, the report laid out a set of basic goals to be used as parameters in the design of the NII. Though the government would encourage private industry to develop the NII with a variety of economic incentives, its creation and form would not be a government design. No matter the final result, the use of the NII should be available and affordable to all people, and it should be seamless and interactive. Additionally, information security, intellectual property, and personal privacy would be maintained. Beyond these and several other general demands, the structuring of the NII would be determined entirely by telecommunications companies and special interest groups, which would be guided by the regulatory powers of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.

Visions of the NII

THOUGH the actual structuring of the NII is only beginning to fall into place, a variety of special interests have stated their visions of what the information highway will look like, in terms of services to offered, the availability of those services and the actual technology used to transmit them. Though the lines drawn between the different visions may be somewhat vague and shifting at times, comparing and contrasting some of the basic issues should prove to be helpful. To accomplish this, we'll explore two of the major thematic designs of the NII: a commercial telecommunications network for entertainment and business, and a noncommercial civic network for research, education and community use.

Why didn't the development of the NII happen sooner?
Tell me about the commercial NII vision.
Tell me about the civic NII vision.
I'd like to see some telecommunications resources.

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