In March 2001, I pitched a story to the Inquirer. The 7th Anniversary of the Philippine connection to the Internet was coming up (the exact date is March 29, 1994). Would they be interested in an account of the events of that day?
My idea was to retell the story in narrative form, similar to the techniques used in non-fiction tech classics like “The Soul of the New Machine” and “Pirates of Silicon Valley” (and more recently, “Accidental Billionaires” which became the basis for the film “The Social Network.”) The editors said yes, so I went off and interviewed some of the principals involved in that historic event.
The result was two stories – the main story was serialized in two parts, published in print over two days . A sidebar that went overboard was the untold story of how Benjie Tan, an engineer at Comnet, actually made the country’s first connection to the Internet the evening before the big announcement on March 29. He celebrated alone with a box of Magoo’s Pizza.
That sidebar was deemed to long for print and appeared only in the web, and even went off-line eventually. I managed to retrieve it using the Wayback Machine, and am putting it here for new audiences to read. Here is Benjie’s story.
(As published online on INQ7 on March 26, 2001)
“On Tuesday, March 29, 1994 at 10:18 A.M. at the University of San Carlos (USC), Talamban, Cebu, the Philippines was linked to the world via Internet. The occasion was the first International Email Conference organized by Dr. John D. Brule of Syracuse University and USC. A cheer went up at the plenary conference. Cebu was again the point of contact with the world as it was in 1521.”
— Dr. Rodolfo Villarica of PH.NET, from a speech at the Baguio Convention of the Philippine Institute of Chemical Engineers, February 17, 1995
It seems there’s always a public side to history, and a private one. This week, we’re celebrating the historic link up of the Philippines to the Internet through the Philnet project, a collaboration of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the academic community. It’s convenient we can even pin an exact time and date to the connection, because there were dozens of folks attending a conference to hear Dr. John Brule saying the simple words, “We’re in” to announce the live connection. There was much applause and cheering, and if it wasn’t too early in the day to start drinking, there should have been champagne corks (or more likely, SMB Pale Pilsen bottles) popping to celebrate. That’s the public side of this event.
But behind every historic public tech spectacle is the quiet story of the techie working in the background to set things up before the newsreel cameras start rolling. There is a private side to March 29, 1994, which incredibly enough seems to have been left out of much of the numerous newspaper and magazine articles describing the events of that day. Luckily I managed to corner Benjie Tan, the man behind-the-scenes that day, and persuaded him into letting us know what really went on. This is his story.
Midnight ride to history
In 1994, Benjie Tan was working for a company called ComNet (Computer Network Systems Corp.), which supplied the Cisco routers used during the Philnet project. In those days, TCP/IP networks weren’t too common (Novell IPX/SPX networks ruled the roost) and not too many people even knew what a router was, much less how to configure it. So Benjie and Comnet president Willy Gan, both of whom later founded the pioneer Internet service provider MosCom, spent a lot of time guiding the young technical committee members of Philnet in the fine art of Cisco router configuration and management. But on that fateful day, all of the Philnet technical crew was down in Cebu attending a conference, so it was up to Benjie to turn on the switch on the Cisco 7000 router to connect Philnet to US-based Internet provider Sprint Communications.
On the evening of March 28, 1994, Benjie flew into Manila back from a business trip in Hong Kong knowing that the hookup between PLDT (the local leased line provider) and Sprint was scheduled to take place that night. It was the last flight out of the then-crown colony. He arrived at the Manila airport at about 11 pm, rushed home to Makati to drop off his things, and then headed out to the ComNet office in Legaspi Village, Makati to await further instructions.
Unfortunately, there was no one in the office, but Benjie sees a note pinned on the wall, written by one of his staff. There’s a checklist of things to do from his boss Gan. He needs to bring over a Cisco 7000 router from the ComNet office and install it in PLDT. Now. There’s also a short apology from his staff. “Sorry sir, we can’t be here to help you because we went home already.” From here on, Benjie is totally on his own. It is now about 11:30 pm.
One of his instructions was to call up the Sprint people in Stockton, California to give them notice that the router would be in place soon and the Internet link would soon be ready to be activated. So Benjie makes the long distance call, introduces himself, and tells the Sprint guys to be ready in about an hour and a half.
There’s a problem though. The Cisco 7000 router needs to be transported. It’s about the size of a small filing cabinet and won’t fit in his car trunk. It’s also very expensive equipment, costing around $70,000 and paid for by Philippine taxpayers with a DOST grant, so one needs to be extra careful about this piece of hardware. Benjie goes for the “Humpty Dumpty” approach and proceeds to take it apart so it’ll fit in his car, with the intention of re-assembling it at PLDT.
“I knew it wouldn’t fit into the trunk,” he remembers. “So all I could do was try to lighten the load.”
He takes it apart, taking out the power supply, the boards and chassis, and brings down the hardware a few pieces at a time to his Toyota downstairs.
He manages to get all the parts in the back seat, but the chassis is so big it ends up in the trunk, with three-fourths of it sticking out. Benjie leaves the trunk open, starts the car, and heads off for the PLDT network center at the Ramon Cojuangco Building, a short drive away. Mindful of the $70,000 hardware he’s carrying, he drives at the snail’s pace of about 5 km/hour. “I knew the route well,” he recalls. “So I knew precisely which bumps and humps to avoid.”
When he drives up to the PLDT building, the guards on duty were naturally suspicious of this strange Toyota with the trunk open and all this metal hardware sticking out. Luckily Benjie has with him a letter explaining who he was and his assignment. They wave him through, and a PLDT tech guy arrives to assist Benjie.
They unload the Cisco router parts from the car and bring it downstairs to the network center. It’s the graveyard shift, and the center is virtually deserted. Benjie reassembles the router (unlike Humpty Dumpty, they managed to put it together again) and with the help of the PLDT tech guy, lifts the router up to the empty space on a rack on top of some modems. They plug in all the necessary cables and power it up.
By now it’s around 1 am, and an hour and a half has elapsed since Benjie left his office.
With the Cisco in place, Benjie calls up Sprint again. He talks to the techs, explains the router’s in place, and that he has keyed in the configuration faxed earlier by Sprint. PLDT was now ready to connect. “Hold on,” says the voice on the other end. “We’re going to open her up.”
Sprint activates the port on their side, and Benjie notices the router lights start to blink. Okay–activity’s going on, he thinks. Benjie sits at his workstation, types in a few commands. He “pings.” Great, it’s getting better.
“That’s when I when I made my request to see what was the Internet was like at the time,” Benjie recalls. “They allow me to turn on routing, then they shoved it down, and I see about about eight or nine pages of data going through my screen. I say, okay, that’s enough! This is more than I can handle! Then they put it back to static route, give a couple more parting words and advice, and that was it.”
Benjie put the phone down. It was now 1:15 am. Philnet was now connected to the Internet.
Celebrating in solitude with Magoo’s
It was history, but no one really the significance of what just went on. For the guys at Sprint, it was just another day in the office. Over at the PLDT network center, there were no marching bands, champagne corks popping, or even a lot of backslapping and “cool” congratulatory comments. Just another graveyard shift.
Benjie of course knew that something great had just occurred. “And then I realized that I had nothing, not even a Coke to celebrate with,” he remembers. “The only place I knew at the time that was open 24 hours close by–because I couldn’t leave this baby too long–was a Magoo’s Pizza.”
“So I drive over to Magoo’s, I get the biggest square pizza they got, I drive back to PLDT, and when I go back in, I asked the PLDT tech guy, hey you wanna share some of this? He takes one bite and goes off to sleep, so there I am alone again and start to finish the whole pizza.”
By now it is 3 am. But Benjie’s job is far from over. He still has to inform Dr. Rudy Villarica and the Philnet team in Cebu that the connection to Sprint had been made. That’s scheduled for 5:30 am, which still gives Benjie two and a half-hours to kill. But it wasn’t going to be boring.
“It was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “Remember, I had 64K bandwidth, a Cisco 7000 router and Internet access all to myself, so for the next two and a half hours I had a lot to do. Imagine, a full 64K compared to 9600 bps dialup–whoa, this was great! I downloaded a lot of files and filled up my notebook.”
One of the things Benjie managed to do in that time was run a newsreader program and post a short message to the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.filipino, alerting overseas Filipinos that a connection had been made. The message read:
Subject: The Philippines is In!
As of March 29,1994 at 1:15 am Philippine time, unfortunately 2 days late due
to slight technical difficulties, the Philippines was FINALLY connected to the
Internet via SprintLink. The Philippine router, a Cisco 7000 router was
attached via the services of PLDT and Sprint communications to SprintLink’s
router at Stockton Ca. The gateway to the world for the Philippines will be via
NASA Ames Research Center. For now, a 64K serial link is the information
highway to the rest of the Internet world.
At about 5:30 am, Benjie places a call to Cebu, to Dr. Rudy Villarica, the Philnet project manager who had been coordinating everything. Villarica, a Cebuano himself , was staying at the house of his brother. He was in town for a three-day conference oddly called “The First International E-Mail Conference” that drew most of the local networking community to the University of San Carlos (USC) Cebu. Philnet had boldly announced they would try to get the Internet link up during the conference. Richie Lozada of Ateneo de Manila, who was then with the Philnet technical committee, had handcarried a Cisco 4000 router on a flight from Manila to get USC all hooked up for the conference. And prior to that, Philnet had PLDT connect USC’s leased line so they were primed and ready.
But it was now March 29, the third and final day of the conference, and nothing had happened yet, and Villarica was understandably getting worried. So when Benjie called up, had a maid rouse Villarica from sleep, and informed him, “Sir, it’s all done,” Villarica was ecstatic. “That’s great! Great!”
“You could tell he was happy,” Benjie remembers, with uncharacteristic understatement.
His work all done, Benjie packed up his things at PLDT and headed home to his family. It was now around 6 a.m. and the end of a long and eventful night.
It would be 10:18 am before the Philnet crew at Cebu could establish a live connection via the PLDT link.
Richie Lozada recalls rushing over to the USC campus to log into the USC Cisco 4000 and establish the link to the Cisco 7000 at PLDT in Makati. By the time the connection went live, it was right before an audience who had assembled to witness a demonstration. Everyone recalls much whooping and cheering. People there knew it was the start of something big, but where it would lead to, no one could be certain.
By this time, Benjie Tan was snug in bed at home grabbing some much-needed shut-eye. Been there, done that.