Most people believe that the Internet is still a project funded by the U.S. government. This includes a handful of journalists I had lunch with recently who write about PCs, online services, and the Internet. After twenty minutes of discussion, I managed to persuade them otherwise.
The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet) used to serve as the backbone of the Internet, and, yes, it was built by the U.S. government. NSFNet originally existed to encourage "scholarly" communication and research; its purpose was to connect mid-level, non-commercial networks with research institutions, supercomputer centers, and (with joint funding from other nations) other computing resources around the world. In fact, over the last four years the Internet has been increasingly made up of commercial networks that interface with each other and NSFNet. About two years ago, the "Internet Powers That Be" decided that the experiment was over – that is, they had proven and established the viability of private sector TCP/IP (Internet Protocol) networks, and government money no longer needed to be invested in that infrastructure. Rather, the money should be directed toward future gigabit bandwidth projects and their role in building the so-called information superhighway.
In November 1994, the NSFNet took the first in a series of steps that would essentially remove the backbone of the beast (the Internet) without killing it. Colleges and other institutions that have been using the NSFNet were advised to find alternate feeds (which have turned out to be primarily MCI, Sprintlink, and ANS, which actually ran the NSFNet backbone as a joint effort between MCI and IBM and then had most of its operations sold to AOL a few months ago).
The final stages are now occurring – some of you may have noted some instability in the Internet in the last week. On 21-Apr-95, the routing tables for NSFNet – essentially, the subway maps for packets on the Internet – were removed. Some problems occurred and part of the routing was re-established. Also, all the major backbone operators (Sprintlink, MCI, PSI, UUnet, Network99, etc.) have been upgrading and moving their equipment at the major Network Access Point (NAP) in Washington, D.C., causing more instability.
On 30-Apr-95 – the end of last week – NSFNet was turned off for good unless something unexpected happened that required some additional perpetuation for a few more days.
This marks a major leap: the Internet is now an all-commercial network. Even if you decide to count the government and education as non-commercial, their traffic is carried on backbones operated by commercial enterprises.
The National Science Foundation will be pumping about $4 million into the commercial networks this year to support the transition, but that funding will decrease and vanish in four years. The bite is that the networks must agree to develop and "peer" (exchange packets) at NAPs. Currently, the major points are MAE-EAST (Metropolitan Area Ethernet East) in Washington, D.C., and the ATM/SMDS/Pac Bell hub in San Jose. Motion is underway by several major networks to start a non-ATM-flavored hub in the Bay Area; Network99 has spearheaded a Chicago NAP; and apparently NAPs in Denver, Seattle, Dallas, and other major cities are also underway. This week, my Internet provider, Interconnected Associates, begins a peering arrangement in their Network Operation Center between Sprintlink and Network99.
These developments have been under-reported because of their highly technical nature – Peter Lewis wrote a piece for the New York Times in November covering some of the details. But regardless of the deep details of the transition, it’s a major step in the commercialization of the Net. In fact – it’s the last step.
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[Glenn Fleishman is the president of the Point of Presence Company (an Internet presence provider), and also a contributing editor for Adobe Magazine, a free-lance featurist for InfoWorld, and the moderator of the Internet Marketing mailing list. For information, check out:]