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History Of Computing

The Beginning Of The Internet – Phone Lines

300px-telrecadapterRemember when the internet was largely conducted over simple phone lines?  Nowadays people don’t even use phone lines for phones.  But the reality was that the early internet relied heavily on the phone companies and the connectivity therein in order to grow and flourish.  Now fiber optic data cables reign supreme, and even wireless data is becoming the norm.

This article is a great look at how the connectivity was very important back in the day:


“Try this experiment. Pick up the phone, dial 800-USA-UNIX and ask a question: “Should protocols be inboard or outboard, in hardware or software?”

Then hang up and consider what just happened. You did not know how many independent telephone companies were involved in making your connection, how many switches handled the call, the type of phone equipment at the other end or even the location of the called party.

Nor did you care. You simply wanted an answer to your question, taking the rest for granted. You also assumed the answering party would speak English.

Of course that was a voice connection. But shouldn’t we expect and get the same degree of transparent connectivity in data communications?

Although such service is not universally achieved, it does communicate thousands of messages every day. More than 1,100 networks are connected with Internet Protocol (the IP portion of TCP/IP) to form a network of networks.

While the Defense Data Network (DDN) and Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) are the centerpieces of this community, sponsorship and participation are diverse.

The installed base of TCP/IP users now numbers over 120,000. File transfer and virtual terminal services are in wide use. For example, the Wollongong Group recently used a VT-100 terminal connected to a Digital Equipment Corp. VAX computer in Maryland to communicate over a public data network to a gateway on the West Coast, where it picked up another network to an IBM host on a LAN in southern California.

The TCP/IP implementations in the VAX and the gateway, along with Advanced Computer Communications’ (Santa Barbara, Calif.) implementation in the IBM host, made the terminal in Maryland appear to the IBM in California as a directly connected, full screen 3270-type terminal.

As a practical matter, voice is different from data, because only in certain environments can you type an address on your computer and transparently access a user many networks away.

The reason we get so much more connectivity over the telephone is that the voice network grew up in a regulated environment. Data communications is cutting its teeth in a deregulated environment where open standards are a product of consensus and are slower to develop.

This contrast is apparent in comparing Telenet, Tymnet and other segregated public and private data networks with the interconnected regional Bell operating companies.

Future Data Communications

While the connection in the example above was made as easily and transparently as a long distance phone call, we still have a long road to travel before data interoperability becomes prevalent as it is in the voice world. This road to standardization, with milestones such as TCP/ IP, Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) and Integrated Services Digital Networks (ISDN) along the route, will take us to a larger and more useful internet.

We are traveling in this direction because data users want the same degree of seamless connectivity that telephone users enjoy today. Data usage will surpass voice usage early in the 1990s.

What will bring together a larger internet is data communications standards. Today, the standard is TCP/IP, the first milestone. But TCP/IP provides a graceful transition to the second milestone, the OSI protocol suite devised by the International Standards Organization (ISO).

While OSI often is written about as though it were already here, in fact it is not. Currently, government standards for the OSI protocol suite are experimental. They call for FTAM, X.400 and TP4 to provide feature-packed document creation, file transfer, administration and mailing over a reliable transport protocol.

But what about internetting? ISO solutions for better internet protocol, routing and gateway protocols, all of which are needed, appear far from completion. Also, there is no virtual terminal application to make every user appear (to a computer) to be using the same type of terminal or PC.

According to the current schedule, these OSI protocols will be experimental for about a year to give vendors and users time to try them out. Past experience would indicate that it will be three to five years before we see wide use of these standards.”

Heiden, Heidi B. “Defense networks strive for seamless connectivity.” Government Computer News 5 June 1987: 54+.