Pioneers of China's First Internet Connection Recall Work

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In 1993, Xu Rongsheng helped drop a bomb on Beijing. That bomb was the Internet.

"This bomb is not a nuclear reaction. It's like information exploded," the Chinese scientist said.

Xu and physicist Les Cottrell worked to set up the first Internet connection in China. The two were reunited on Monday, videoconferencing by the very technology that they helped pioneer in the country.

The two scientists, who established the Internet connection during the early 1990s, reminisced about the experience at China 2.0, a technology conference in Beijing that was hosted by Stanford University.

"I can see you very clear by Internet now," Xu said to Cottrell, who was viewable through real-time video. "I see you didn't change much. But Beijing has changed very much."

China has the world's largest Internet population, with more than 420 million users, according to the Chinese government. But more than 15 years ago, hardly anyone in the country was using the Internet, except for a group of China's scientists.

The initial Internet connection was the result of a partnership between the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing and what is now the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California. The institutions had simply wanted to improve overseas communication to conduct research. Originally, IHEP could communicate to SLAC through a dial-up X.25 connection that allowed only one e-mail be exchanged once per day. The connection cost US$100 per hour.

In 1991, the institutions began working to establish a direct link with each other. Cottrell, who works at SLAC, traveled to Beijing, helping to first set up a direct modem connection between IHEP and SLAC.

Cottrell recalled initially thinking that the experience would be a "nice tourist trip." But he soon realized it had become a mission. The institutes faced challenges that included IHEP needing to install international phone line connections for the modem, as well as language barriers. Cottrell resorted to writing down all he said to ensure everyone understood his instructions.

"It was very easy to make a mistake because you didn't understand," he said. "It was increasingly difficult as we went on, but increasingly rewarding."

In March 1993, the two institutes had managed to establish a faster dedicated link at 64K bps (bits per second) using AT&T's SkyNet satellite service, an action which was approved by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The link allowed the institutes to exchange an average of 2,500 e-mail messages per day. But more importantly, certain physicists at IHEP could remotely log into SLAC's computers via the connection to access the Internet. A year later, after the U.S. government gave approval, IHEP would be allowed a direct link to the Internet without the need for remote access.

Xu, who works at IHEP, recalled that people at the institute thought establishing the connection was like "sending someone to the moon."

Only until 1995 was the first public Internet connection made available. Now China's Internet population is expected to exceed 470 million by the end of the year, according to Beijing based technology consultancy BDA.

The development of the Internet in China has been a surprise, said Cottrell, noting that he originally believed the Chinese government would forbid access to the Internet.

"I thought this would be due to the Chinese government trying to keep a lid on society," he said. "Of course as time has gone on, it's always been exciting how China has forged ahead, and how the Internet is really helping this."

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