First-Hand:My Little Role With the Internet: A Memoir
Submitted by A. Michael Noll
February 8, 2022
I left Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. and went to Washington in June 1971. I joined the White House Office of Science and Technology (OST), which was then directed by Dr. Edward E. David, Jr., who was also Science Advisor to President Nixon. My area of responsibility was computer technology and privacy.
I had no prior experience in government and policy – I was on a steep learning curve and in over my head with little guidance. I turned to others for guidance and collaboration. I became involved with past colleagues in speech technology who were at the National Security Agency (Doug Hogan), and we collaborated on computer security issues. I also became closely involved with the Office of Management and Budget (Hugh Loweth), and learned how to navigate the Washington bureaucracy.
Packet switching was in its infancy back then, and Larry Roberts was the program manager for the ARPANET. The ARPANET was developed as a means for the ARPA research community to share computing power by data sharing single 56 kbps data lines. In the end, the difference in computer systems was so large that the computing sharing did not work that well, and the ARPANET was used primarily for sharing text documents and messages – email.
There was no mention in those days of the motivation for the ARPANET being the creation of a distributed network that would be survivable from a nuclear attack. This story seems to have been invented later.
The use of the ARPANET was restricted to the ARPA community. However, the academic community supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted access to the ARPANET for text messaging. ARPA wanted to sell access to the NSF community. That would have made ARPA something of a government telecommunication common carrier in competition with private companies, and this would have been against the policy of the Nixon administration. Accordingly, the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy (OTP) held a meeting with ARPA. I was told by Dr. David to attend that meeting.
As I recall, Phil Enslow, possibly along with Charlie Joyce, were the OTP folks at the meeting. The ARPA person might have been Larry Roberts, who was the ARPA program manager for the ARPANET. ARPA was told by OTP that it was not to sell access to the ARPANET. I inquired whether AT&T had been asked whether it would create and sell a packet-switched data service. I was told that AT&T had been approached and said it had no interest in offering packet-switching data service. I then asked whether Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) would be interested in doing so. I thought that BBN as the prime contractor to ARPA for the ARPANET would be in a good position for selling the service to others. I was quite surprised when I was told BBN was not interested in doing so.
A short time later I was speaking on the telephone with Dick Bolt of BBN, and told him of the meeting and the comment that BBN was not interested in selling packet switching as a service. He was surprised by this and said he would get back to me. A few days later, we spoke again, and he said that this was not the correct decision and that BBN would indeed sell such a service. He said that a new company – Telenet – was to be created to offer and sell packet switching. He asked me whether I would be interested in being involved with that new company in a senior management position. Since I thought that would be a conflict of interest in using my position at OST, I declined. I also had no experience in managing a business. And thus Telenet was formed, and Larry Roberts became its CEO. It would later become the Internet.
A few years ago, I spoke to a historian of BBN who knew of the initial decision not to offer packet switching, but then of the sudden reversal of that decision. I was able to recount my little role in that reversal as a result of my conversation with Dick Bolt.
Although not its technological inventor, Larry Roberts has, in my mind, always been the father of the Internet. It was his support and promotion of packet switching that led to the ARPANET and ultimately the Internet. But indeed, as with most innovations, a number of people are involved in their beginnings.
Telecom vs Information Service
The ARPANET stimulated the question in the early 1970s as to whether it was a telecommunication service or an information service. I, as a staff person at OST, was asked for my opinion. The ARPA community claimed that since the ARPANET was used to gain access to computing and information services, it was an information service. I believed that since it was used to transmit and switch data, it was a telecommunication service. I recall making a diagram that showed where the telecommunication service ended and where the information service began. But the ARPANET and its successors were declared information services, not subject to any government regulation or control.
Much later, a new term “net neutrality” would be coined for all end-to-end content being treated equally with no control or regulation – what used to be known in telecommunication as common carriage. Some players with market domination want traffic advantages over others, in violation of net neutrality.
Today, some in the Internet community who in the past seemed to want all traffic on the Internet to be treated equally -- net neutral -- now advocate some control or regulation of the content that is distributed and accessed over the Internet. It is all quite confusing. I believe the packet transmission and switching should be common carriage, but the information accessed and published (and those doing) so might need some control in some cases with publishers being held responsible for content. Untangling this changing quagmire will be a real challenge for policy makers and politicians.