Persuading Telkom to install an international Internet connection

12 November 2019 marked 28 years of the Internet in South Africa.

On this day in 1991, South Africa established its first TCP/IP link from South Africa to the United States.

That achievement was largely thanks to the work of South African Internet pioneer Mike Lawrie.

In 1988, a Rhodes University team consisting of Lawrie, Francois Jacot-Guillarmod, and Dave Wilson used donated equipment to salvage their own Internet gateway and set up a working email link between the university’s computer centre and the FidoNet email network.

By 1990, they attempted their first TCP/IP connection, linking computers at Rhodes and the University of Cape Town via UNINET.

Finally, in 1991, the first international TCP/IP connection was made between Rhodes and the home of Randy Bush in Portland, Oregon.

Lawrie wrote a detailed paper on the methods the team used on its road to connecting South Africa to the world wide web.

MyBroadband spoke to Lawrie about his reflections on those early days and asked him about the current state of the Internet in South Africa.

His answers are detailed below.

What were some of the greatest challenges involved in setting up South Africa’s first international email link?

One was to get past the experts on the then UNINET Board who had a far too negative view at the time that any international link could be set up. This in about 1988, when the comprehensive anti-apartheid act of the USA had been enacted.

I got very little if any support from that quarter at the time, until I showed that it actually had been done for the Rhodes University campus.

Another was to find some way of routing the mail to international destinations. We tried several alternatives without success, and eventually settled on using a PC running FidoNet software, and tweaking things so that email that was sourced and destined for the Rhodes Control Data mainframe magically appeared on that PC as if it had been typed directly on that PC.

That was, literally, for email. When it came to making TCP/IP packets flow to/from the Internet, a major challenge was to persuade Telkom to install an international circuit. They refused point blank for some 3 months.

How would you describe the feeling when you successfully sent that first email?

We (the three of us, viz Francois Jacot-Guillarmod, Dave Wilson, me) were on a high. It was quite unbelievable to us that we had achieved this, and that it kept working. Keeping up with the way the traffic expanded then became a serious problem.

What were the types of down/uplink speeds you were able to reach with the networking system?

Once we had the first FidoNet-based dial-up system working, circa Feb 1989, we switched from a 2400bps dial-up modem to one that could achieve something like 14,400bps. Given 10 bits (start bit, 8bit byte, stop bit) the data flow jumped from 240 characters per second to 1,440.

When Telkom eventually installed the leased line, we still used that 14,400 modem. By then the link was being used to carry traffic for 10-odd universities, and was badly congested.

What do you think were the most important developments in the history of the Internet in South Africa?

This is very difficult to say, but I would mark the year 1995 as being the time when commercial use of the Internet got going in SA. You know the story, in the army your greatest promotion is from private to lance corporal, so in that vein commerce woke up to the Internet.

I think that an important aspect was to deal with Telkom. My view of the obstructions that they put in the way, and their total lack of support for research and academic networking, was a huge obstruction to the country.

It was not surprising that SATRA rejected Telkom’s assertion that they had the sole monopoly to provide Internet services throughout SA – this alone was a landmark event.

Small schools in the USA were connected to the internet at T1 speeds (1.5Mbps) while the largest of our universities did not even have half of that bandwidth for their connection, and shared a badly congested international link. How was the country to produce IT gurus under such conditions?

How do you feel about the global and South African Internet landscapes today?

Without doubt SA is missing the boat. The education system, even at private schools, suffers from teachers that are severely lacking in IT skills. At the least, all teachers should have 24/7 access at home.

Pupils do not have to become IT experts, but they should be fully confident in using IT, indeed be so familiar with it that they are almost bored by it. How can that happen unless the teachers themselves have a high degree of confidence?

Access to online services (eg my bank, my medical aid – names withheld) are appallingly slow. Surely there is enough fibre in the ground to speed things up? Like the empty seat on a plane, it is too late to sell the ticket, so it is with dark fibre.

Globally? The hacking is an utter curse, but I believe that the reason why this is possible is because there is so much bad software out there that one can hack together stuff like ransomware.

When the supplier of the world’s most popular OS puts out a gigabyte or two of so-called “security updates” every few months, it goes to show that its software is very unreliable.

I do find it most odd that people publish their personal information on social media for the world to see, and then get upset when someone garners huge amounts of this information and uses it for who knows what.

Now read: The internet is less free than it was a decade ago

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Persuading Telkom to install an international Internet connection