The Day the Philippines Hooked Up to the Net: Part 1

On March 29, 1994, the Philippines was connected to the Internet for the first time. It was the result of the work of a dedicated group: very young computer science teachers from the country’s leading universities, seasoned project managers, and network engineers. This is their story.

This piece was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 26-27, 2001.

In commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Philippine Cyberspace, we are serializing it on this blog, the first time it has been published on the web in ten years.

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Part 1: PhilNet Phase One

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University of San Carlos

“WE’RE in.”

These two words announced to a crowd of conference participants gathered at the University of San Carlos in Talamban, Cebu, that a Philippine network called Philnet had just established a live connection to the global Internet. It was 10:18 a.m. on March 29, 1994, and a big cheer went up from the crowd.

Today, it’s hard to imagine life without e-mail. Without the World Wide Web. Without URLs or domain names. Without spam, Flash, MP3s and instant messaging. No ISP bills, prepaid Net cards, or cable modems. No ISPs. Just seven years ago, we didn’t have these things. The Net is something a lot of us take for granted today. And March 29 is the day we commemorate its entry into the Philippines.

It wasn’t an accident of nature. It took a resolute group of young, idealistic people from the country’s top universities and research centers, working hard on Philnet, to bring it all together.

What surprises people used to today’s megabucks-swilling dotcom landscape is that Philnet wasn’t underwritten by a major telecommunications conglomerate eager to cash in. In the early ’90s, big business or even the general public didn’t care too much about the Internet. It was mainly populated by nerd communities at universities and research institutions and the occasional hacker underground.

It had its own rules and culture, which were intimidating to outsiders. But it also held the promise of access to a wealth of information available on tap, which made it particularly appealing to universities. The Philippines was no exception.

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The Beginnings: E-mail

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Richie Lozada, then a computer science instructor at Ateneo de Manila and now director for E-Commerce at Microsoft Philippines, recalls those early days, circa 1993.

“It started off as a small university-driven project. Back then, it was Ateneo, De La Salle and UP Diliman just trying to set up an e-mail network among ourselves.”

Back then, e-mail was the biggest thing–and the only thing. No real-time chat, no Web services.

The universities linked up using a Unix dial-up mail protocol called UUCP. Generally, there were no problems sending mail, as long as the phone line was good.

“In those days, half the game was figuring out which telephone lines would work,” Lozada recalls. “The telco infrastructure during those days wasn’t exactly optimal.”

Lozada was assigned to work on the project by Arnie del Rosario, head of the Ateneo’s Computer center. Luis Sarmenta–who had achieved local notoriety as a student by writing some antivirus software–was initially working on the project but went off to MIT for his Ph. D., and Lozada took his place.

Over at De La Salle University (DLSU), Kelsey Hartigan-Go (now assistant vice president for IT at SM Prime Holdings) handled the unsavory task of interfacing with the Ateneans. DLSU had already established a campus-wide network as far back as 1989, and Hartigan-Go (who had experienced the real Internet as a grad student in the UK) had even established a workable facility for DLSU that could send mail to the Internet. As far back as 1991 he was dialing up to Joel Disini’s (now CEO of DotPH Inc.) commercial e-mail service via the UUCP protocol and sending mail out through Disini’s Applelink and UUnet gateways.

Rodel Atanacio and Rommel Feria at UP Diliman rounded up the group. Rodel and Rommel had already achieved some cyberspace fame by maintaining their Bulletin Board System, UP BBS, which was a dial-up information system for all things UP. These techies, together with other young computer jocks working at the Department of Science and Technology, formed the first version of the group that was to be known as the Philnet Technical Commitee, and were to play lead roles in wiring up the universities to the Net.

Del Rosario brought the university e-mail project to the attention of Glenn Sipin of the DOST’s Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development group, who agreed to provide some funding. Sipin ponied up P60,000 and the inter-university project shifted to another level, now called Philnet phase one.

The funding was used to improve the e-mail set up and incorporate something new: Sending e-mail to the real global Internet by dialing up to a gateway. Ateneo had relations with the Victoria University in Australia, which offered the use of its Internet gateway at no charge, provided the Philippine universities dialed up at their own expense.

The project worked. Students from all three universities could send e-mail to the Internet by routing messages through Philnet’s gateway in Ateneo, which then connected to Australia, and then piped out the mail to the Internet. Incoming messages went back in through the same route. Because the system used IDD to connect to Australia, PLDT bills started to rack up, and the initial grant didn’t last very long.

Still, the results were encouraging enough to make the DOST and Philnet consider taking the next step: Full Internet access.

Enter Philnet Phase Two.

(To be continued in Part 2) 

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5 thoughts on “The Day the Philippines Hooked Up to the Net: Part 1

  1. Great post, Jim. I actually know one of these folks, Kelsey Hartigan Go, as he was one of my professors at DLSU. Will eagerly look forward to the rest of your posts as they come in.

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