The Network of All Networks

By Robert E. Calem, Freelance Writer
The New York Times

December 6, 1992

Next spring, Will Steger, an explorer and the author of a textbook about the environment, will lead elementary- and high-school students from 100 schools and 10 countries on a hike through the Canadian Arctic. Along the way, they will conduct experiments and, Mr. Steger hopes, have fun too.

But the students will not really be in the Arctic. Instead, they will be participating from their classrooms, using personal computers linked to a worldwide network called the Internet, to keep in touch with Mr. Steger as he leads a team of scientists across the frozen tundra.

Called the International Arctic Project, the activity will employ very high-tech means to bring science down to earth. And in doing so, it will join myriad other recent developments that have opened the Internet to a vast array of people who otherwise might never have heard of it.

The Internet is an enormous computer network in which any existing network can participate. It encompasses satellites, cable, fiber and telephone lines, and it seems to have grown exponentially. It was once the sole domain of United States Government-sponsored research scientists. Now, everyone from Will Steger's students to commercial enterprises can get access through the Internet to vast amounts of information on other computer systems around the world. Among the growing number of places from which the Internet system was once off limits but is now accessible: public libraries and on-line information services available to home computer users, like America Online, CompuServe, Dow Jones and, soon, Prodigy.

Moreover, some of the companies that provide "gateways," devices that connect computers operated by the on-line services to the Internet, are selling the same access directly to PC users.

But the Internet is not centrally managed and has no centrally offered services. Anyone using the Internet has to know what information is available and where to look for it.

Still, proponents of the new connections say the Internet brings a new level of power to ordinary people using the most basic personal computers and could have an impact on the nation's educational system by giving students access to cutting-edge research worldwide. "Once you're connected to the Internet, you have instant access to an almost indescribable wealth of information," according to Ed Krol in "The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalog."

Mitch Kapor, the founder of the Lotus Development Corporation who is now head of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that "seeks to develop public policies to maximize the social potential of new computer and communications technologies," likened the Internet to a library where all of the books are dumped on the floor in no particular order.

And, in fact, libraries are increasingly making use of the system. Since 1991, for instance, the libraries of the Boston Public Library System and five colleges in Massachusetts have been using a part of the Internet known as Nearnet, for the New England Academic and Research Network, to connect with one other. This allows the libraries to create a common computerized interlibrary loan system, according to John M. Rugo, a project manager at Nearnet.

Nevertheless, the Internet is still used mostly by scientific researchers subsidized by the National Science Foundation, which controls the main computer network that is the Internet's backbone. In the future, however, the Internet might be completely privatized. Right now Mr. Kapor's Electronic Frontier Foundation is working toward the nearly total elimination of government subsidies for the Internet's operations. The reason is that commercial messages are forbidden from centers that receive Government funding, and this complicates the use of the system.

But general purpose users may eventually outnumber the computer experts who now dominate the system, and they are gaining access in rapid numbers.

On-line information services, which started by offering consumers things like news updates and at-home computer-based shopping, are being pushed by members to offer better links to other PC's outside the fold, said John T. Eldredge, director of sales for Performance Systems International Inc., based in Reston, Va., which provides some of the on-line information services with gateways into the Internet. Moreover, Mr. Eldredge said, the pressure individual users are exerting is growing as "the number of people with their own PC's at home continues to grow enormously." He estimated that there are now about 40 million computers in homes.

James A. Galambos, director of creative services for Prodigy, said customer demand was responsible for his company's decision to offer an Internet connection. "People have expressed interest in the Internet to communicate with people on other on-line services and on the Internet," Mr. Galambos said.

Currently, Performance Systems offers access to the Internet directly to consumers through their own national networks of local gateways for a monthly charge of $19 to $39. Performance Systems and other companies like it created a system to connect to the larger network and pay a membership fee, but beyond that do not have to pay access charges. And they provide a wider choice of services than the on-line services can deliver. These include access to information stored in computer systems operated by government agencies and scientific research institutions.

Another option is a service called Usenet newsgroups. This is described by Mr. Krol in "The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalog" as "an informal, rather anarchic, group of systems that exchange news" in the form of open discussions among users. Mr. Krol's book is a primer about the Internet published by O'Reilly & Associates Inc. of Sebastopol, Calif.

Still another option is Telnet, which allows a user to harness the power of another participant's computers remotely. For example, using Telnet, an individual with a personal computer could ask another participant's supercomputer to perform complex calculations on his behalf.

There is no way to give an exact number of people who are using the Internet or to identify them because of the network's size and complexity. But Mr. Eldredge said that use of the Internet by individuals has increased 50 to 80 percent in the past year and a half, while the number of corporations has doubled. Other sources put the number of individuals who have used the system at more than 15 million in the United States and 25 million worldwide.

GRAPHIC: Photo: A visualization of traffic on the National Science Foundation network, part of Internet. (National Center for Supercomputing Applications)

Diagram: "What's In Internet," shows how Internet system works. (Source: O'Reilly & Association)

Robert E. Calem is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in technology issues.


Copyright 1992 The New York Times Company