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NSF and the Birth of the Internet Text-only | Flash Special Report
2000s


A New World
By the time the new millennium came, the Internet had truly transformed the world. Hundreds of millions of people had come online and the private sector had laid millions of miles of high-speed fiber optic cables across the globe. Although the “dot.com” crash in the early part of the decade eliminated many Internet-related start-up companies, the end result was a vastly improved network infrastructure, a skilled Internet workforce, and high public expectations for what the Internet could do to make life better. These factors have led to continued improvements in both how the Internet works and how we use it. The Internet is now increasingly faster, mobile and ubiquitous. But despite all this progress, many exciting challenges—and possibilities—await the next generation of Internet pioneers.

Image: Hand holding cell phone.
Credit: © 2007 Jupiter Images Corporation

Web 2.0 – Interactive and in Our Lives.
The World Wide Web has become truly interactive in the past five years or so, creating a phenomenon some call Web 2.0. Since the turn of the century, the number of homes and businesses with broadband Internet connections has grown exponentially. This new level of connectivity allows users to be more active participants online. Around the world, millions of people are now sending video emails or ‘vmails’ posting photos and comments to blog sites, and using social networking sites to build virtual communities of people who share common interests. Companies now invite consumers to create and post their own ads for products. Political candidates use similar tactics to interact with voters. These activities are opening up new avenues of scientific inquiry as researchers observe our interactions online to gain insight into human behavior. All of this shows that we are just beginning to tap the Internet’s potential to transform our lives.

Image: This mind map diagrams many of the ideas, products and activities associated with the concept of Web 2.0. When the World Wide Web was first introduced, most content was produced by a few people and distributed to all who visited a certain Web page. Now content is much more customizable, interactive and open to comment and criticism. This phenomenon is commonly described as Web 2.0.
Credit: Luca Cremonini, railsonwave.com

Internet2 – Back to the Lab
The Internet was created by scientists and researchers who wanted to share information and harness supercomputers in far-off locations. But eventually it grew beyond laboratories and universities and into broader society. Now, the scientific and research communities are trying to create a next-generation network to empower their work that could improve the broader Internet in time.

Supported by NSF, the Internet2 project is similar in many ways to the original NSFNET project. NSF is helping major research laboratories and universities build a dedicated very high-speed network that will allow them to share astonishing amounts of data. This connection allows researchers to work on important scientific challenges, such as finding new treatments for disease and developing new sources of energy.

Image: Developers at the NCHC Access Grid node test network links in the SARS Grid in May of 2003. Throughout the spring of that year, eastern Asia was rocked by a deadly outbreak of the lethal and contagious SARS virus. Researchers in Taiwan requested help from other scientists on the Access Grid, a networked-based collaboration environment that uses high-speed data links to bring researchers and computing power together to tackle such complex problems. These virtual links allowed many doctors and researchers working in quarantined hospitals to exchange information about the disease without spreading the virus further.
Credit: National Center for High-performance Computing, Taiwan

The Future?
So, in twenty short years, the Internet has gone from a few networked labs and universities to a multi-layered network connecting hundreds of millions of people. What will the next twenty years hold?

NSF is sponsoring research into building a stronger and faster Internet, as well as faster computers.  Research into quantum computing and the tantalizing possibilities of all-optical computing suggest that we may have computers in our homes, cars, and offices that are faster than today’s supercomputers in the not so-distant future. When so many of us have access to such computers, what will use them for online? What will the Internet look like in 2027?

Whatever your guess, don’t limit your ideas. In 1962, when two computers connected cross-country, few people would have been bold enough to imagine today’s Internet. The challenges and possibilities are out there, waiting for the next group of dreamers to change the world once again.

Video Transcript:

Vint G. Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google: “What can we say about what’s going to happen to the Internet?  The current statistics are impressive: 1.2 billion people around the world using the Network; over 500 million devices on the Net today—not counting servers, not counting laptops and personal digital assistants, mobiles that have been internet-enabled, which probably make another billion total—things on the Network today.”

Eric M. Aupperle, President Emeritus, MERIT Networks: “We started out with replacing a 56 kilobyte network with a T1 network and a T3 network as we’ve been talking about.  Today, most folks have higher capability in their homes than any of those networks.”

Doug Gale, former Program Officer, NSF; former CIO, University of Nebraska: “I know when my chancellor—I was at the University of Nebraska—kept asking me, ‘When is the Network going to be done?  When am I going to have to stop writing you these big checks?” And I had a casual—you know—flip answer.  And the answer was, ‘Well the bandwidth of the human eye is about 10 gigabyte, and anything less than that is an insult to me as a human being.  We’ve got an impedance mismatch so until we’ve got a 10 gigabyte connection to every individual on campus, I’m going to have to build the Network.’  And 10 gigabytes in 1987 seemed like a pretty big number.  Now we’ve got 10 gigabyte connections and—guess what?—growth hasn’t slowed down one whit.”

George O. Strawn, Chief Information Officer, National Science Foundation: “There are a few visionary people who I think can envision how something might become, but with information technology, my experience has been half of the things you envision come faster than you think they will and the other half come either slower or not at all.”

Doug Gale, former Program Officer, NSF; former CIO, University of Nebraska: “We’re looking at a biological revolution which introduces huge data streams.  We’re looking at remote instrumentation in a way that wasn’t even imaginable.”

Hans-Werner Braun, former Principal Investigator for NSFNET at MERIT Networks: “I could see people build beautiful virtual worlds on their computers as a decentralized system that networked with each other.  I don’t mean like today’s often violent games, but environments—including graphical ones—that reflect the sense of what people would want to live in and work in, and to communicate with each other.”

George O. Strawn, Chief Information Officer, National Science Foundation: “We’ve progressed from electrical networks from the days of the telegraph and telephone, into electrical optical networks.  We still haven’t really figured out how to create an all optical Internet.”

Vint G. Cerf, Chief Internet Evangelist, Google: “You’re going to see the interplanetary extension of the Internet unfold in the years following 2010 because our current plan is to space-qualify the extended protocols that are required for deep space communication with high delay, round-trip times like 20 minutes to Mars one way, and many much more times to outer planets.”

Doug Gale, former Program Officer, NSF; former CIO, University of Nebraska: “I would say networking communications is not going to slow down one whit.”

Jane Caviness, former Program Officer, National Science Foundation: “I think there’s a whole bunch more stuff waiting to be done.”

Doug Gale, former Program Officer, NSF; former CIO, University of Nebraska:
“But all of it hinges on processing lots and lots of bytes of data.”

George O. Strawn, Chief Information Officer, National Science Foundation: “You ain’t seen nothing yet—meaning that I think that the information technology developments of the next 50 years will be at least as spectacular as the information technology developments of the last 50 years.”

Video Credit: Cliff Braverman, Dena Headlee, Lauren Kitchen and Dana Cruikshank for National Science Foundation
John Prusinski, Kathryn Prusinski, Michael Conlon and Joan Endres for S2N Media
Courtesy of Hans-Werner Braun

Still Image Credit: © 2007 Jupiter Images Corporation