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The NSFNET Backbone Project, 1987 – 1995

NSFNET: A Partnership for High-Speed Networking

Image of 3-D NSFNET Traffic Map “Government policies and programs should view the academic enterprise as a whole and cultivate it as a national asset. This in turn would establish a framework for future partnerships that would allow teaching to flourish in conjunction with research and other activities.”

Mary Lowe Good and Neal Lane, “Producing the Finest Scientists and Engineers for the 21st Century,” Science 266 (November 1994).


Infrastructures, for purposes such as transportation and communication, have long been vital to national welfare. They knit together a country’s economy by facilitating the movement of people, products, services, and ideas, and play important roles in national security.

In addition to these broad social and economic uses of infrastructure, however, are individual uses: if directed to do so, the benefits of well-designed and expertly built infrastructure can be realized at the level of the individual or groups of individuals as well as at the level of society as a whole. For over one hundred years, the public switched telephone network has served our needs for communications infrastructure in the United States, reaching most of the population with a ubiquitous, reliable, and easy-to-use telecommunications technology. But today’s networking communications technologies can empower scientists, researchers, educators, business people, policy makers, and citizens with the ability to access, create and distribute information much more powerfully and quickly than ever before. Such empowerment represents the true potential of the Information Age.

At present, policy makers, business people, educators, citizen’s groups, and individuals in the United States are consumed by the notion of constructing a National Information Infrastructure, or an “information superhighway.” Meanwhile, millions of people all over the world are connected to the Internet, a global, packet-switched network of networks running over phone lines and other communications media. As debate continues over the proper means to build, maintain, and oversee such infrastructure, the Internet continues to grow and evolve at astonishing rates.

Thus the development of today’s computer networks underlying tomorrow’s communications media becomes ever more important technologically, economically, and socially. But in order to understand where we are going, it is vitally important to understand where we have been. The history of the Internet is a tale yet to be told, but the NSFNET represents one of the most significant parts of that story.

Part of the National Science Foundation’s ongoing high-speed computing and communications infrastructure initiatives, the NSFNET program from its inception in 1985-1986 was the foundation of the U.S. Internet and the main catalyst for the explosion in computer networking around the world that followed. The NSFNET backbone service, the basis of the larger NSFNET program, linked scientists and educators located on university campuses in the United States to each other and to their counterparts located in universities, laboratories, and research centers all over the world.

Through a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, Merit Network, Inc., a consortium of Michigan universities, in conjunction with IBM, MCI, and the State of Michigan, created the NSFNET backbone service to serve the research and education community’s growing need for networked communications. Using the NSFNET, the research and education community led the way in pioneering new methods of applying information technology to scientific and industrial research as well as education.

The partnership of academia, industry, and government that built the NSFNET backbone service also pioneered a model of technology transfer- the process by which technology is “transferred” from the public to the private sector-whose rewards are only beginning to be realized. From 217 networks connected in July of 1988 to more than 50,000 in April of 1995 when the NSFNET backbone service was retired, the NSFNET’s exponential growth stimulated the expansion of the worldwide Internet and provided a dynamic environment for the development of new communications technologies. As we begin to address the challenge of national and global information infrastructure-the next generation of communications infrastructure-we are fortunate to be guided by the example set by the NSFNET in its successful partnership for high-speed networking.

Next: Coming Together

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