A few Indian bytes on the Internet which turned 40
BANGALORE: Atul Chitnis’ archives of India’s earliest online discussions, on the subcontinent’s first public online system CyberInfo eXchange (CiX), comprise largely geeky messages, friendly exchanges and general discussion threads. However, Mr. Chitnis, who developed CiX, did not realise the power of this medium until he posted a message in 1994 (after the plague outbreak) trying to dispel panic in the West, where people had been quick to brand India as an unsafe and dangerous travel destination.
While many online users dismissed his messages as “a cover-up,” an anonymous user logged on to support him. Many of those who questioned the veracity of their claims quickly changed their minds and rebooked their tickets when it turned out that the user was the head of the World Health Organisation (India).
The Internet had arrived.
It took the “Internet” a long time to move from being a technical term to the social one that it is now. In India, public Internet arrived via the academic community through a project called the Education and Research Network (ERNET) and — mired in bureaucratic processes and controversies — a decade later into our homes when the VSNL set up six Internet gateways. This journey had, however, begun way back in 1969.
The year 1969 was revolutionary — with the iconic Woodstock music festival, man landing on the moon and a few giant strides in the world of computing, all in the course of a few months. Just weeks after developers struck gold by enabling time-sharing on computers with UNIX, engineers scrambling to find ways of safeguarding military data discovered a way of linking communication hosts — thus, making computers talk to each other.
It is unlikely that the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) engineers who created Arpanet predicted that this simple data exchange between two giant computers, via a 15-foot cable, would change the way the world “linked” with each other.
S. Ramakrishnan, the first national project director of Ernet, recalls the day he proposed that a UNDP fund offer be utilised for “computer networking” — a rather obscure and still evolving phrase back then in 1985. This project linked a few computers in eight academic campuses through LAN (Local Area Network) for the first time, interconnected later through WAN (Wide Area Network); thus setting the stage for India’s digital landscape.
Months later, the first domestic digital line connection was inaugurated — a 64 kilobits per second lease line between the Department of Electronics (in Delhi) and the NCST, Mumbai. In 1989, the first Internet connection between the NCST and the UU Net (in the United States) was also set up.
In 1991, India also became the first to use VSATs (Very Small Aperture Terminal) for carrying TCP-IP traffic, given that those were still early days for such a requirement.
Mr. Chitnis talks about his trysts with this technology, one that he was very much in the thick of. “I’d always found the concept of electronic data communication fascinating. Since there was nothing available then, I started developing my own tools. A cheap [for its time] 300 bps modem got me dialling into Bulletin Board Services [BBS] across the world — with horrifyingly huge phone bills!”
So, at an expo in Bangalore, people noticed Mr. Chitnis’ team using modems and their own tools, including a remote host system, to exchange messages. “People asked for access to the system, and so in 1989 we fired up the Indian subcontinent’s first public online system — the CyberInfo eXchange or CiX,” he says. Within weeks, CiX had hundreds calling in, and the journey of “discussing online” had begun.