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The Internet:
Handwashing of the Future?

Interview with Susan Estrada
Carlsbad, California

An original developer of the Internet, Susan Estrada founded CERFnet, an Internet service provider, in 1988. During her 5-year tenure as the CERFnet executive director, she was instrumental in CERFnet's user growth from 25 university members to hundreds of corporate members and thousands of individual users including an annual profit. In 1993, Susan wrote Connecting to the Internet, An O'Reilly Buyer's Guide. Also in 1993, Susan founded Aldea Communications, Inc. which focuses on advising companies and universities on strategic telecommunications strategies. Its client list includes the University of California, Hughes, AT&T InterNIC, Network Solutions, Cisco Systems, AT&T Jens, Pacific Bell, and Bell South. Susan is an elected Trustee of the Internet Society, a founder of the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX), a former area director for the Internet Engineering Software Group (IESG) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). She currently is an appointed member of Pacific Telesis's Telecommunications Consumer Advisory Panel and the U.S. Federal Networking Council's Advisory Committee (FNCAC). -- Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Starting up the Internet

In Motion Magazine: What was the origin of the internet, and how did it become world-wide?

Susan Estrada: In 1968-69, the internet was a research project involving the U.S. Federal Government and a defense research agency. The purpose of the project was to create a network that would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

After the government finally got it going, they decided to deploy it, and actually use it. This research agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, was doing spook work in high end esoteric research and it formed the ARPAnet. Connections were made to other countries, to the U.S. military in other countries. And since ARPANET was a research network, wherever researchers needed to be connected, those people were connected.

In 1985 , the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided that the internet protocols being used had something to them and they hooked up several supercomputer centers.

In 1987 they decided the network worked well enough that they could open it up to any old researcher who happened to have a qualified application. That was the start of the big boom on the internet as we know it today.

Also at that time other researchers in other countries, where they had big facilities, like CERN, which does a lot of high energy physics in Switzerland, were brought into the net. The U.S. federal government was picking and choosing where it wanted to hook people up.

In 1990, people who weren't picked decided that they wanted to be hooked up and that's when the what we call the regional networks, the little internet service providers like CerfNet, NearNet, NizerNet, all the old original hook-me-up-to-the-internet bunch of people started bringing in international connections. These new countries were paying their own ticket on the way over here. By `91 the internet became a commercial network

In Motion Magazine: What countries were these?

Susan Estrada: Korea, Japan, Australia, France, England, Ireland, etc.

In Motion Magazine: What do you mean they were paying their own way?

Susan Estrada: It means they were paying the full cost of transporting traffic both to and from the U.S. out of their own pocket.

In Motion Magazine: How did it then go from those countries to all the countries, or all the ones that are on now?

Susan Estrada: Magic. Primarily, if you look at the growth of the internet, what happened is that in the research and education community, a lot of people came from overseas and are educated here. Then once they get their higher education, they return home. If you're used to using the internet, the internet's one of those things that you can't live without.

They decided they needed it at home. They started research networking on their campus, or amongst campuses in their country and together they hooked that up to the big internet. Also, as soon as the people who've used the internet started graduating from college , then it becomes much more commercial and the commercial internet provider starts.

It's a history you can watch in almost any country from a research and education networking perspective to a commercial perspective. The timeline is shorter than it used to be in the olden days. When we did it here in the U.S. it took about 3-4 years to transition from research to commercialization and it's 2-3 years in most other countries now. -- if they have the telecommunications and the structure to support it.

In Motion Magazine: The internet started with five supercomputer centers?

Susan Estrada: The NSF portion of it did. You have to realize the internet, the gateways between all these different things going on in the internet, the Dept. of Energy had its own thing going on, the NSF had its thing going on, ARPA had its thing going on, Dept. of Defense had its thing going on, and all these things were out there interconnected to each other, and all of those things could be considered the internet.

Now there's a lot of commercial stuff. In the good old days there was only government stuff, now they're all still there and they used to be it but now they're a small percentage of the whole.

In Motion Magazine: When you send e-mail from one point to another, it doesn't go in a straight line, it goes through many different computers in bits, right? Parts of it go one way, parts go the other way, what ever is the quickest way to get there?

Susan Estrada: Right.

In Motion Magazine: So do any of those bits go through military computers? Or are they completely blocked off from the rest of the internet.

Susan Estrada: It depends on where you're going.

Generally speaking, I would imagine that in today's internet that if you're going between industrialized nations you would probably have a commercial path between yourself and somebody you were trying to talk to. If you were going to a developing nation, there would be a pretty high likelihood that the government was sponsoring paying for part of the connection you were using into that country.

In Motion Magazine: What does it mean that the government is no longer helping to support the internet

Susan Estrada: The internet now is commercial enough that the commercial market should be capable of supporting it.

In Motion Magazine: What does that mean?

Susan Estrada: You and me. Why should the government support your connection to the internet.

In Motion Magazine: How do we support it?

Susan Estrada: Pay money every month to your Internet Service Provider. Now it's a product, not a research project anymore.

The Internet and Globalization

In Motion Magazine: Do you think there's a relationship between the development of the internet and the development of the world market?

Susan Estrada: Probably. I don't know how soon that's going to be happening. If you read any of these books about the future of communication technology Tofler, Bill Gates, the whole premise is that everything is an electronic transaction. You have electronic cash, electronic everything. Those with the intelligence win. Intelligence is the commodity of the future so if you have the intelligence, the knowledge, the data base, then you're the one that controls the world

It's pretty clear that if you use the internet for any period of time your world shrinks tremendously because it's just as easy to get an e-mail from your next-door neighbor as it is to get an e-mail from some guy in Finland. Also it's just as easy for some guy in Finland to look at your work on the World Wide Web as it is for your next-door neighbor to look at it. It's clear that the world is shrinking and it's clear that the internet's playing a big part in that.

This whole idea of a world economy comes down to ... there are many disparate cultures in this world, and while I think the internet can help unify them, I'm not really sure that it isn't also going to be the cause of the wars 20-30 years from now.

For example, pilfering information online. In the spy business I guess they've been in the knowledge acquisition business for a long time, in an entirely networked society, it just becomes easier to pilfer information.

In Motion Magazine: So what are you saying, there's a down side, it's not all up?

Susan Estrada: You'd be foolish to really perceive that human nature is going to be changed. It's like marrying somebody that's an alcoholic and believing that because of your good graces, that you can change them. People are not going to change just because we have a different mechanism for communicating with each other. The internet is basically a way to enable communications. So is human nature going to change the way people behave among each other? No.

But, will effective communications change people's perceptions of things? Probably.

In Motion Magazine: What are some of the relationships that are already out there. You were talking about how different countries have to pay their way to get on the internet. Do you see that changing?

Susan Estrada: There's a variety of different factors involved. Right now the internet is U.S.-dominated. Most of the innovations are occurring here, most of the software development is occurring here, most of the material that's up on the Net is from the U.S. I think countries are starting to get pretty miffed because they look at it as this U.S. thing.

They understand the power of the technology. They understand the communications vehicle that it offers. People want it to work for their society.

So, for example, in Korea they don't want a nice big English-based World Wide Web, they want a nice big Korean-language-based World Wide Web. The language is there, the character sets are there. But will it work if you want to get consumers in the U.S. to start buying your products directly from Korea? No because most consumers in the U.S. can't read Korean. There's a Catch-22 going on.

We say that there's this great big Web thing that everybody can have a look at it, but from a world-wide perspective you're only as good as however many languages you can communicate with people in. Right? There's a lot of parochialism starting to occur. Particularly in the government realms, and education fields.

Kids need to be educated in their own language. Most countries don't teach in other languages early on. We don't here. Many countries are the same as us. We're going to see the internet divide into the Korean World Wide Web and the Taiwanese World Wide Web and the Chinese World Wide Web and the Japanese World Wide Web and the Malaysian World Wide Web. They're all going to be in different languages.

Right now the web is fine for people who speak English, period. If you have a business anywhere in the world and you don't speak English, you're kinda hosed. Are we making English the dominant language in the world by its pervasiveness on the internet? Maybe. Are we going to drive everyone in the world to learn English? No, because many of people will never ever need it. But we are developing these islands of language on the Net.

In Motion Magazine: Are there browsers that translate?

Susan Estrada: No.

There's software. What I've heard about has 75% accuracy. People are working on it, but 75% isn't very good. It means you're missing 25% of the conversation, and if you missed every fourth word I was saying, it would be really hard to understand what I was saying or talking about. It's hard enough when you've heard every word, much less missing every fourth word.

The Internet and Future Society

In Motion Magazine: What did you learn on your recent trip to east Asia?

Susan Estrada: It's hot there in August.

This was a trip to explain how you could incorporate the internet effectively in the primary and secondary school systems. So what did I learn? Everybody's interested in doing it. Most kids in school don't speak anything but the native language of their country and find the web completely useless as it is today.

There's a lot of enthusiasm to get networking into primary and secondary schools. And interestingly enough, most Asian countries are so tightly controlled by the government that when they decide to do something, it happens. I would suspect that it's sort of like in Japan. When they decided that they were going to have the internet -- within a year's time they had virtually every major corporation in Japan hooked up on the internet.

In the U.S. we've known for a long time it's a good thing to hook up our schools to the internet, but it's been very difficult to get the powers-that-be to put together the appropriate package of resources that a school needs to be able to do that. They need computers, they need telephone connections, they need support and training. In other countries when they decide to do projects like this, they just make the decision, get the money and go for it. I wouldn't be surprised to see other countries much more dominant in the education field than the U.S. in 5-10 years.

In Motion Magazine: Which countries?

Susan Estrada: Countries with money and a high belief in a good education system. Japan, Korea, Taiwan.

In Motion Magazine: Where is the internet going?

Susan Estrada: It's going towards replacing telecommunications as we know it today. This is the path toward the future, the Jetsons. In the future you will punch the screen on the wall and your boss comes up. It's just like any other communications vehicle, books or radio or telephone or television. It's a medium where people are talking to each other. And luckily for us it's a two-way medium so I can talk to you and you can talk back to me. Where's it going to go? Where ever people take it.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see changes coming in the accessibility of computers?

Susan Estrada: Computers are a pain in the neck. There is a lot of material on the internet that's quite useful. But you don't need to have a computer to access it. There are things like Web TV, and other niche devices that people are talking about. For example, you'd have your monitor in the kitchen that would let you access the internet but it would be focused on retrieving and storing recipes. Or bringing in the latest news reports. It wouldn't have all the functionality of the computer.

Just to use the internet, you don't need to have a word processor and a spreadsheet and all the other things that a computer buys you. Yet, that's one of the only ways we have to access the internet today -- buying a computer, which is so stupid.

As the price to play comes down, then I think we'll see more people online. I also think that as we get our kids more educated and more used to having this as a communications vehicle, you're going to see a prevalence. It'll be more ubiquitous

In Motion Magazine: How are these technological advances helping society?

Susan Estrada: I've been watching the Jetsons since I was a little kid. I want the TV screen so I can video conference with my kids' teachers. I want to be able to access information I want without having to buy 50,000 books to get it. It's a different way of providing communication, providing information to people.

Technology has certainly helped move us where we are today but I think we've a long way to go before for it becomes useful for mainstream folks.

You look at the internet today compared to five years ago and it's way more useful. It's way easier than it was, but it's still a pain in the neck. You can't find anything you're looking for. You can find things accidentally as you pop around the network but it's still really hard to find people. How do I find people's e-mail address? Still, I call them up on the phone and ask them what their damn e-mail address is.

Is this the best thing we've ever done? No. Drugs are way better. My son and I we were studying last night about anesthesia, antibiotics, and antiseptics and those things have done marvelous things for human kind.

Washing your hands, what a concept. Is this the handwashing of the future? I don't know, but it is more interesting than a phone because you can do a lot more with it. How do we get it to the next level where it can be useful to everyone? The communications path is only as good as its ubiquity. You have to be able to talk to anybody you want to talk to any time you want to talk to them. And the internet isn't there yet. But, some of the brightest minds in the world are working on these problems. There will be great developments in the next five to 10 years.

What we're seeing is the hype. But people are not comprehending that this business of the internet for every man has only been around for 3-4 years.

This is like the beginning of cars, when six guys had cars because they had a lot of money. Cars were really funny and people thought they weren't going to go anywhere.

Or some of the earliest quotes about the phone. "Who needs one of these things." We have a long way to go.

From a societal perspective, we have an opportunity to look at the internet in a positive manner. How do we benefit society with this tool?

People say, "Well why doesn't it do this?" "Why doesn't it do that?", "Why can't we go here?". Well, you know, it's the beginning. We've barely got the car out of the driveway. From a society perspective, we've got this car, what the hell are we going to do? We can use it for good things and bad things. We can use it to make money or to lose money. We can use it to hurt people or to save people. It's all up to the people using it to figure out what's going to happen. It's a very powerful technology.

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Published in In Motion Magazine September 17, 1997.