How the internet started in South Africa

South African consumers are quick to complain about the current state of the country’s internet connectivity; but how many know about the rocky start the internet had in launching here?

With the 20th anniversary of the first global internet connection made in South Africa occurring in November 2011, we take a look at a brief timeline of those challenging early years that make the internet of today seem blissful in comparison.

Humble Beginnings

1987
•    Pushed by a need for inter-connectivity, the scientific community starts the UNINET project, with plans to virtually connect sites at universities across the country.

1988
•    An informal team of Rhodes students, led by Mike Lawrie, band together to work on establishing the first internet network in South Africa.
•    Using donated and salvaged equipment, they build their own gateway.
•    Rhodes receives its first IP network number.

1989
•    UNINET is fully in place, allowing the Rhodes gateway to work as a carrier for e-mail.

1990
•    The first TCP/IP connection is attempted, trying to link the mainframes at Rhodes and UCT via UNINET.
•    After successfully linking UCT and Rhodes, further TCP/IP links are established between universities across SA.
•    The ZA domain is registered.

Connecting to the world

1991
•    Telkom is officially established; refuses to install and lease a line to the USA because of costs involved.
•    Dialup costs are 3 times more than what is considered standard at the time, with Rhodes racking up bills in the thousands.
•    Despite the challenges, the first internet protocol connection to Portland, Oregon, USA is made.
•    The Penril Modems used, pushed the data rate from SAPT (Telkom) modems’ maximum of 9,6 kbit/s to a whopping 14,4 kbit/s.

1992
•    Due to slow data speeds, response times at late-night hours are over 5 minutes.
•    The “ZA” domain causes ‘domain storms’ – with unresolvable ZA domains triggering multiple requests from remote hosts, which in turn trigger even more requests.
•    Diagnostic problems are made worse, as systems and sites are isolated from each other in terms of communication.

1993
•    The first commercial ISPs start forming.
•    Post graduate students form the African  Internet Development Action Team (AIDAT) and begin compiling information on ISPs and identifying shared network issues.

1995
•    The “co.za” domain is established, expanding national commercial internet. The domain is administered by UNINET, with ISPs being reluctant to take over the administrative function.
•    ISPs meet in Braamfontein for the first time – reined by UniForum.

1996
•    ISPA is founded by AIDAT members.
•    Technological advances, understanding and regulatory reform continue to develop, ushering in the next phase of the South African Internet network.

While we may continue to lament the status quo of internet connectivity in South Africa; it’s good to look back and tip our collective hats to the pioneers of yesteryear, who went before and established the networks we get to complain about today.

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How the internet started in South Africa