Tuesday, August 08, 2006

INTERNET ACTIVISM IN CHILE...Part 4: How the Chilean Internet was Born

Yesterday my research partner, Rosario Lizana, and I interviewed Florencio Utrera, the Father of the Chilean Internet. It was very interesting to hear how a technological revolution occurred for the person who was the driving force behind it.

Prof. Utrera is a trained mathematician who came to the United States in the 1980s's as a visiting professor at the time when computer networks were just catching on. This was long before the internet as we know it today. Back then networks were based at universities and were primarily used for transferring academic resources within the university. Univerity networks were local and were not necessarily even connected to each other. Prof. Utrera was working as a visiting associate professor at Texas A&M when he learned from a colleague at the University of Wisconsin about a thing called "e-mail." It sounded neat, but Texas A&M didn't have a network yet, or e-mail. Prof. Utrera went up to Wisconsin, talked to Larry Landweber, a pioneer of the internet, and brought e-mail and a network back to Texas A&M. Soon he would perform the same feat for the country of Chile.

In 1985, Prof. Utrera returned to Chile to become Director of the Department of Mathematical Engineering at the University of Chile. Pretty soon, he got a new title. He started poking around, asking why the university didn't have a network or e-mail. Finally the Dean gave in. He created an Academic Computing Center and made Prof. Utrera its Director.

In 1987, Prof. Utrera went to a meeting at Princeton University. The goal of the meeting was to determine a platform on which to connect the different university computer networks in the United States to NSFNet, a
n open network funded by the National Science Foundation allowing academic researchers access to five supercomputers located at different universities around the country. NSFNet became the "backbone" to which isolated regional and academic networks connected. The result was a unified academic computer network that soon became international.

In 1988, Prof. Utera created the first Chilean computer network, a TCP/IP network based at the University of Chile, which connected twenty Chilean universities to eachother and to the rest of the world through NSFNet. The network, which still exists, is called REUNA (National University Network). It went online (became open for general use) at 7:30 pm on January 2nd, 1992, a very memorable moment for Prof. Utrera. No wonder, it marks the beginning of the internet in Chile.

Pretty soon, REUNA began to take on clients outside the University system in order to cover some of its costs. This was a little dicey, because technically for-profit enterprises were not allowed to use NSFNet. However, traditional multimedia companies in Chile were not ready to invest in the internet yet. Finally in 1995 the first real commercial internet providers, like Entel and CTC Mundo, moved onto the market. For-profit companies bought REUNA's internet provider business (and also that of its competitor network, RDC).

The Chilean internet also got a boost in 1996 from the creation of Enlaces, which connected Chilean schools to one another, and from the 1998 decision by the IRS that all tax forms should be submitted online. The first decision meant all Chilean school children had some limited awareness of the internet. The second made the internet credible. Businesses decided that if the IRS trusted the internet, they should trust the internet too. In 1998, major Chilean businesse began to create websites. And now Chile has such a vibrant web and blog culture that people like me come from other countries to study it! A revolution indeed!

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