June 4, 2004  




Ten Years Ago, SLAC Brought the Internet to China

By Davide Castelvecchi

May 17 was the tenth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China’s first Internet connection to the world, through a satellite link between SLAC and the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing.

Establishing a stable channel of communication had become a pressing need after 1990, when the Beijing Electro-Spectrometer (BES) collaboration began between IHEP and SLAC and other American institutions. “We realized that computers were becoming more and more important in a collaboration,” says Les Cottrell (SCS).

Working with his Chinese counterparts and with the help of Charles Granieri (SCS), Cottrell set up a dial-up connection during his first trip to China in 1991. Dedicated phone lines had to be installed at IHEP which would be able to make direct international calls.

Cottrell personally carried a 9600bps (bits per second) modem to China, which allowed him to log on to a SLAC VAX computer from Beijing using the DECnet protocol, an early competitor of today’s Internet Protocol.

With the new connection, the researchers working at IHEP were able to send and receive e-mails. At effective transfer rates of 900 bps and at a cost of about $100/hour, the connection was too slow and too expensive for serious research needs.

“When I came back, I talked to DOE to see if they were interested in funding a satellite connection,” Cottrell recalls. The funding was granted, but the U.S. government had concerns over human rights in China—and there were fears that Chinese users could access sensitive information stored on other U.S. servers. “The DOE said we could not forward traffic from China to the Internet,” Cottrell says.

Meanwhile, the Department of Commerce had restrictions on the export of high speed routers to China, so the link was limited at 64Kbps. At a cost of $10,000 per month, evenly split between the two countries, the connection would be only slightly faster than today’s domestic 56Kbps dial-up modems. Even so, getting it to work turned out to be much harder than expected.

A 35-kilometer microwave radio link would get the signals from the satellite dish at Beijing’s Capital International Airport to the local phone exchange. After unsuccessful attempts to use the existing lines, a dedicated copper link was laid to cover the last two blocks between the fiber-optic network and the IHEP.
Two years later on March 14, 1993, the link was finally up and running, and a number of Chinese researchers would use it to exchange an average 2,500 e-mails a day.

A year later, the U.S. government approved a special license for exporting a Cisco TCP/IP router—the add-on that would enable IHEP’s computers to send and receive data using the Internet Protocol. After formally announcing (to meet a Department of Defense requirement) that IHEP would be joining the Internet, on May 17, 1994, the satellite link became China’s first Internet connection.


The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Thursday June 03, 2004 by Emily Ball