Ten Years Ago, SLAC Brought the Internet
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
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.