The Day the Philippines Hooked Up to the Net: Part 2 (Enter the Doctor)

Presenting part two of our story of the events leading up to the first Philippine Internet connection on March 29, 1994.

In this installment, we introduce a new character to our story, Dr. Rudy Villarica, who became so instrumental to the effort, he is often referred to today as “The Father of Philippine Internet”.

This story was originally published in March 2001 in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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Part 2: Enter the Doctor

A screen capture of Dr. Villarica giving a speech in 2007.

(Continued from Part 1.)

The second phase of Philnet brought into the picture an entirely new personality. Dr. Rudy Villarica, a chemist by training, had gone through a colorful career that allowed him to merge an interest in science and engineering with business and industry. He had been involved in building plants and factories and at one point even served as the director of the DTI’s Board of Investments (BOI). Now mainly retired, he spent much of his time with nonprofit foundations like the Industrial Research Foundation (IRF). It was while he was with the IRF that an opportunity dropped into his lap to be the captain who would steer Philnet’s course into a live Internet connection.

Villarica remembers that events took place quite fast. He had joined the IRF as a trustee and in October 1993 was handed an assignment by the IRF executive director Cesar Santos who told him, “Rudy, this is right up your alley.”

That assignment turned out to be Philnet. IRF was contacted by the DOST to handle the funds management and project implementation because while Philnet was a university consortium, it had no real legal identity to accept a grant of the magnitude that they were planning to request.

Also, the DOST had noticed elements of the age-old competition between Ateneo and De La Salle brewing again and they wanted a neutral party to be in charge.

Villarica agreed to meet the Philnet technical team. Del Rosario and Sipin were excited about moving the project toward full Internet connectivity. At the meeting, they drew up a three-page project brief, with a “shopping list” of equipment and communication lines needed to make it a reality. Initially, Philnet estimated the project would cost about P8.5 million. Right after the meeting, Villarica went over the shopping list with Cesar Santos, and made some notes and corrected some of the figures in the proposal.

He told Santos he had a scheduled trip to the United States to visit one of his children enrolled in graduate studies at Syracuse University in New York. He was leaving the next day but would be back in a month and, in the meantime, maybe Santos could sum up the project cost and submit it to the DOST for funding.

“Cesar, bahala ka muna dito, (take care of things here while I’m away)” were Villarica’s parting words.

In the first week of December 1993, Villarica returned from his trip and checked on Santos.

“Good news, Rudy,” said Santos. “We have the project formally approved by the DOST with a memorandum of agreement. And you’ve been assigned as project administrator.” Apparently, the DOST had approved the funding on Nov. 23.

“Magkano ang budget na na-approve? (How big a budget was approved?)” asked Villarica. The grant turned out to be P12.5 million for the first year. Villarica thought it was fair. But how should one proceed from there?

Immediately, Villarica set a personal goal for project completion. The Internet connection should be completed by April, he thought, a mere four months away. He didn’t know if it was realistic, but it was as good a target date as any. And besides, he had already made a promise to Dr. John Brule.

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Dr. Brule I presume?

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John D. Brule

Dr. John D. Brule was a Professor Emeritus in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Syracuse University in New York. About 30 years ago, he had been sent to the Philippines on a teaching assignment under a project of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization. A jolly, easy-going man, Brule and his wife easily fell in love with the warmth of Filipinos. He enjoyed the teaching experience so much, he later returned to the Philippines whenever he could, and taught pro bono at the University of San Carlos in Talamban, Cebu during his stays as a visiting professor.

As the Internet unfolded in the late ’80s, Brule was naturally excited to share the learning opportunities of the technology with Filipinos. Unfortunately, there were no local universities hooked up to the Net at the time. Then sometime in 1993, Brule got wind of Philnet.

Brule had an idea that a conference would be a good way to evangelize the learning potentials of the Internet to the Philippine academic community. He was sure he wanted it held in Cebu, having been convinced like many Cebuanos of the inequity of having to deal with “Imperial Manila” all the time. This time Cebu was going to take center stage.

But a full fledged Internet conference would be impossible to demonstrate at the time since only e-mail was starting to be readily available in the Philippines at the time, either from Philnet, commercial e-mail providers, or amateur networks like FidoNet bulletin boards. So Brule decided to call the event “The First International E-Mail Conference.”

John Brule’s Original Announcement for the “First International E-Mail Conference”

Workshop on the Use of Electronic Mail in the Philippines
Date: March 29-31, 1994
Venue: University of San Carlos, Talamban Campus
Organized by: College of Engineering, University of San Carlos, Cebu City, Philippines

It is recognized that the number of email users is growing rapidly in the
Philippines but there still exist numerous potential users in academe,
industries, government and NGOs, who are either unaware or are unable to
gain access to existing email facilities.

The purpose of the Workshop is to gather providers, users, and potential 
users of email services to present and discuss the current status and 
availability of email services and how they can be used for various purposes.

The text of the full e-mail is archived here.

Immediately, he spread the word on online communities frequented by overseas Filipinos such as the STACnet mailing list and the Usenet newsgroup soc.culture.filipino. He was also cooking up a batch of descriptions of the conference to send to Philnet’s Del Rosario. In October 1993, while at Syracuse, he casually bumped into his old friend, Dr. Villarica, visiting one of his sons taking graduate courses in the university.

Brule and Villarica had first met back in 1987. Villarica’s son Marty had just been accepted for graduate studies in engineering at Syracuse.

Villarica accompanied his son to look around and eventually was introduced to Brule. When Brule mentioned he was often in Cebu to teach at the University of San Carlos, a common chord was struck as Rudy Villarica and wife Pilar are Cebuanos and they knew some of the people Brule mentioned. Pretty soon they got to know each other quite well, and would visit each other’s homes when in town.

Villarica casually mentioned to Brule that he had been placed in charge of Philnet, and the plan was to get a live Internet connection going.

Brule couldn’t believe his luck.

“Wonderful! How soon can you get the Internet link-up?” he asked.

Brule had scheduled the E-Mail conference for March 1994 and had already invited some Net-savvy overseas Filipinos he met through STACnet to participate as speakers.

“Do you think you can arrange for a live link-up at the conference?”

Villarica mulled over the question a bit.

“Well John, it’s going to be a close call,” he answered.

But eventually Villarica promised Brule he could get the connection up by that date and the first live connection would coincide with Brule’s conference. Privately, Villarica wondered if he could meet the promised deadline, which was only four months away. But he was certainly going to try.

(To be continued in Part 3)

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