Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


The NSFNET is the Internet

Posted on | May 20, 2016 | No Comments

An important intermediary in the transition of the military’s ARPANET into the commercial Internet was the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. The NSFNET adopted TCP/IP and required all connecting nodes to use them as well compliant network technology, mainly built by a small California startup company called Cisco. With government funding for advanced scientific and military research, the network expanded rapidly to form the initial Internet. Without the NSFNET, the Internet would have grown differently, probably using the X.25 protocols developed by the phone companies. Without specifying the use of TCP/IP protocols the Internet would have emerged with significantly less interoperability and diversity of services.

The NSFNET has its origins at the University of Maryland during the 1982-83 school-year. The university was looking to connect its campus computers as well as network with other colleges. It applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for funding but found it was organizationally challenged for such a request. In response, the NSF set up the Division of Networking and Computing Research Infrastructure to help allocate resources for such projects. The Southeastern Universities Research Association Network or SURANET adopted the newly sanctioned TCP/IP protocols, connecting the University of Maryland to other universities. It set a precedent and nearly two years into the project, SURANET connected to IBM at Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was formed during the 1950s before computer science emerged as a specific discipline. It first established areas of research in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics before it became a significant supporter of computing activities. Finally, in 1962, it set up its first computing science program within its Mathematical Sciences Division. At first it encouraged the use of computers in each of these fields and later towards providing a general computing infrastructure, including setting up university computer centers in the mid-1950s that would be available to all researchers. In 1968, an Office of Computing Activities began subsidizing computer networking. They funded some 30 regional centers to help universities make more efficient use of scarce computer resources and timesharing capabilities. The NSF worked to “make sure that elite schools would not be the only ones to benefit from computers.”[1]

During the early 1980s, the NSF started to plan its own national network. In 1984, a year after TCP/IP was institutionalized by the military, the NSF created the Office of Advanced Scientific Computing, whose mandate was to create several supercomputing centers around the US.[2] Over the next year, five centers were funded by the NSF.

  • General Atomics — San Diego Supercomputer Center, SDSC
  • University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — National Center for Supercomputing Applications, NCSA
  • Carnegie Mellon University — Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center, PSC
  • Cornell University — Cornell Theory Center, CTC
  • Princeton University — John von Neumann National Supercomputer Center, JvNC

However, it soon became apparent that they would not adequately serve the scientific community.

In 1986, Al Gore sponsored the Supercomputer Network Study Act to explore the possibilities of high-speed fiber optics linking the nation’s supercomputers. They were much needed for President Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and as well as competing against the Japanese electronics juggernaut and its “Fifth Generation” artificial intelligence project.

Although the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986 never passed, it stimulated interest interest in the area and as a result the NSF formulated a strategy to assume leadership responsibilities for the network systems that ARPA had previously championed. It took two steps to make networking more accessible. First, it convinced DARPA to expand its packet-switched network to the new centers. Second, it funded universities that had interests in connecting with the supercomputing facilities. In this, it also mandated specific communications protocols and specialized routing equipment configurations. It was this move that standardized the specific set of data communication protocols that caused the rapid spread of the Internet as universities around the country and then around the world. Just as the military had ordered the implementation of Vint Cerf’s TCP/IP protocols in 1982, the NSF directives standardized networking in the participating universities. All who wanted to connect to the NSF network had to buy routers (mainly built by Cisco) and other TCP/IP compliant networking equipment.

The NSF funded a long haul backbone network called NSFNET in 1986 with a data speed of 56Kbps (upgraded to a T1 or 1.5 Mbps the following year) to connect the high-computing power for all its nodes. It also offered to allow other interested universities to connect to it as well. The network became very popular but not because of its supercomputing connectivity but rather because of its electronic mail, file transfer protocols, and its newsgroups. It was the technological simplicity of TCP/IP that made it sprout exponentially over the next few years.[3]

Unable to manage the technological demands of its growth, the NSF signed a cooperative agreement in November 1987 with IBM, MCI, and Merit Network, Inc. to manage the NSFNET backbone. By June of the next year, they expanded the backbone network to 13 cities and developed a modern control center in Ann Arbor Michigan. Soon it grew to over 170 nodes, and traffic was expanding at a rate of 15% a month. In response to this demand, the NSF exercised a clause in their five-year agreement to implement a newer state-of-the-art network with faster speeds and more capacity. The three companies formed Advanced Network & Services Inc. (ANS), a non-profit organization to provide a national high-speed network.

Additional funding by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 helped expand the NSFNET into the Internet. By the end of 1991, ANS had created a new links operating at T-3 speeds. T-3 traffic moves at speeds up to 45mbps and over the next year ANS replaced the entire T-1 NSFNET with new linkages capable of transferring an equivalent of 1,400 pages of single-spaced typed text a second. The funding allowed the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s NCSA (the National Center for Supercomputing Applications) to support graduate students for $6.85 an hour. A group including Marc Andresson developed a software application called Mosaic for displaying words and images. Mosaic was the prototype for popular web browsers such as Chrome and Internet Explorer.

The NSFNET soon connected over 700 colleges and universities as well as nearly all federally funded research. High schools, libraries, community colleges and other educational institutions were also joining up. By 1993, it also had links to over 75 other countries.[4]

Pressures had been building to allow commercial activities on the Internet, but the NSF had strict regulations against for-profit activities on its network facilities. During the 1980s, the network was subject to the NSF acceptable use policy, including restricting commercial uses of the outcomes of NSF research. Congressman Rick Boucher (D-Virginia) introduced legislation on June 9th, 1992 that allowed commercial activities on the NSFNet.[5] In one of his last executive acts, President Bush finally allowed business to be conducted over its networks and those that were being built around it. Several months into its newly liberalized status, the NSFNET transitioned to an upgraded T3 (45Mbs) backbone status – much, much faster than its original 45Kbs speed.

The legacy of the NSFNET is that it ensured the proliferation of the TCP/IP technologies, protocols and associated hardware. These systems were designed as an open architecture that accepts any computer and connects to any network. It was also miminalist, requiring little from the computer and neutral to applications (e-mail, browsers, FTP) and content running on the network.

Although these are idealistic principles and not always followed in practice, they were largely responsible for the unlocking the tremendous economic growth of the Internet age. For example, Marc Andresson and some of his colleagues soon left the University of Illinois at Urbana and formed Netscape to market their “browser.” Their IPO in 1994 helped spark the massive investments into the Internet that characterized the 1990s and the rise of the “dot.coms.”


[1] Janet Abbate’s (2000) Inventing the Internet by MIT Press is a classic exploration of the history of the World Wide Web, p. 192.
[2] Abbate, p. 191.
[3] Kahin, B. (ed.) (1992) Building Information Infrastructure: Issues in the Development of a National Research and Education Network. McGraw-Hill Primis, Inc. This book contains a series of papers and appendixes giving an excellent overview of the discussion and legislation leading to the NREN.
[4] Information obtained from Merit, December 1992
[5] Segeller, S. (1998) Nerds 2.0.1 pp. 297-306


AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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