Would there be the Internet without the 'U'?

Graphic by Nolan Loh
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By Zach Bergson, Online Editor
Published February 7, 2012

There are countless theories of how the Internet was created. Most people respond to the question with playful jokes about Al Gore’s remarks in 1999 that he “took the initiative to create the Internet."

But when this question is posed to University administrators, it's met with a decidedly different answer.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but although Al Gore claims he invented the Internet, we built it,” said former University president James Duderstadt.

Dan Atkins, the associate vice president for research cyberinfrastructure, added that the University “played a critical role at the tipping point in propagating … the open architecture and the intelligence at the ends rather than the center kind of model that the Internet now has.”

Most of Michigan’s involvement in the creation of the Internet can be traced back to one man, Doug Van Houweling.

Van Houweling, an associate dean for research and innovation, first came to the University in 1984 during a critical time in telecommunications research.

Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said before the 1980s, most innovations in telecommunications came from places like Bell Laboratories and IBM research laboratories. But as costs grew and competition increased, the business models of these institutions changed. They could no longer make the investments in innovation that they used to make, according to Forrest.

“What rushed into that vacuum were universities,” Forrest said. “They became the engines for innovation, and of course Michigan was there among them.”

In a 1984 nation-wide competition, the National Science Foundation awarded five universities funding for supercomputing sites.

Michigan wasn’t awarded a site, but was later asked by the NSF to rebuild its overloaded and dysfunctional network, NSFNET. The network was one of the precursors of the Internet and was created by NSF to connect the supercomputing sites around the country.

Its original version operated at a snail's pace compared to the networks we know today — only 50,000 bits per second. ARPANET, a network created by the Department of Defense, predated NSFNET but was only used by a few computer science departments around the country that received Department of Defense funding.

Starting in 1987, Van Houweling spearheaded the University’s effort to rebuild NSFNET. His team initially approached the state of Michigan’s own network Merit, which was created collaboratively by the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, to work together on the project.

After the Merit board agreed to join the project, Van Houweling solicited the help of IBM and MCI, a now-defunct telecommunications company, to build the hardware and routers for the network. The partnership between the private and public sectors made Van Houweling’s project efficient and cost effective.

In the end, NSF awarded the University funding to launch the new NSFNET in 1988 because of the strength of its proposal and its low costs, Van Houweling said.

Van Houweling said it was from this point forward that the Internet as we know it today began to take shape. The new NSFNET, unlike its predecessor, did not become oversaturated with information and actually grew by 10 percent every month until it was shut off in 1995.

Initially, the network was restricted to research facilities and higher education. But as it grew, many commercial companies started to pay for its connections and access spread to the general population. By the time the University shut off NSFNET in 1995, private corporations had the knowledge to run their own networks.

Van Houweling added that the University was uniquely positioned to build a successful and efficient network, as opposed to other universities around the country.

“All the other proposals that were submitted to NSF would have built much less capable networks,” Van Houweling said. “(Other university networks) would have gotten saturated. There wouldn’t have been enough resources to make them work, and the notion of these Internet protocols that we now depend on for everything would have gotten a black eye. It might have been the end of the Internet.”

Atkins said if the University did not step up, the Internet could have ended up as a much more closed environment that was segmented between telecommunications companies.

Echoing Atkins’s words, Van Houweling said the telecommunications companies were against the open structure of the Internet he helped create.

“Of course, none of the telephone companies thought this was a good idea," Van Houweling said. "From their point of view, the only way to run a network was with a hierarchical control structure, and the Internet has a distributed control structure."

Looking back on what his team achieved, Van Houweling said he believes the Internet could have been created only in an academic setting.

“The only place in the world the Internet could have been invented was at a university, because we’re the only people who understand that good things happen when nobody is in charge,” he said.