Fifteen years since Czechoslovakia's first official internet connection

Exactly fifteen years ago, on February 13th 1992, the Czech Technical University in Prague hosted a momentous event. At a meeting with university computer science experts and representatives from the University of Linz, the RIPE network coordination centre, and the US National Science Foundation, Czechoslovakia was officially connected to the internet. Dita Asiedu spoke to Jan Gruntorad, who headed the Technical University's computer network department at the time, about this historic moment:

"We invited those people who helped us deliver the internet to the country. They are Steve Goldstein from the US National Science Foundation and colleagues from the University in Linz, Wilfried Machstera and Gunther Schmittner, and we sent an invitation to our colleagues from the university environment and we introduced them to the internet services, the features they could use and after the lunch break we invited them from the lecture room to the computer hall where they were given a demonstration of the internet services using the terminal."

How much was known about the internet at that time?

"The knowledge was very small. Even the audience, people from the computer science department of the university, had some knowledge but never had the chance to see with their own eyes how it was being used. But I would like to bring to the listeners' attention that at the time the internet was not connected to personal computers. It was connecting big mainframes. This means that those people who had access to the service were only those with access to these mainframes, which means students and university employees."

It was mainly students and pioneers of modern technology who initiated this connection to the internet. How long did it take for this to happen?

"Well, the original idea came to us just after the political changes. This means we started being active in 1990 and finished in 1992 so it took about two years to bring this idea to life and I think that's not too bad..."

But what did you have to do in those two years?

"We first had to make contact with the people in the neighbouring countries, those in the West who could make it possible for us to get the connection. Then we had to learn about the technology. That was not too difficult because the people already had the know-how. But what was most difficult was to establish a connection and get the permission from the National Science Foundation in the US because in the early days it was more or less an 'academic' internet and everyone who wanted to connect needed approval from the National Science Foundation. So, it took some time. But the Foundation was very flexible to those of us from the university or the Academy of Science because they wanted researchers in the US to be able to communicate with researchers in the East. So, it was really a very smooth process."

So, what could people actually see on their monitors? I'm sure it was a completely different kind of technology that we're talking about...

"By that time, of course, there was no graphical information, there was just plain text. Actually, there was no World Wide Web and there were no other advanced services. E-mail was the most advanced service then. What was very new and advanced was the Telnet which meant that we could log in to computers at the university in Linz [Austria] and see some of the files that were available. Of course, that was very valuable for us because before the political change it was very difficult to communicate with our 'colleagues' in the west. Before that, the classic post was available, so you sent a letter to your colleagues and it took one to two weeks for it to be delivered and about a month to get a reply."

Do you still have some of the old technology from that time?

"Yes, I do. In this room you can see the first multi-protocol router that I have preserved and there's also the old telecommunication panel when the line from Linz was terminated. I'm planning to have an internet museum but that will be on the twentieth anniversary or some time like that."

So how did the media and the ordinary people react?

"Frankly speaking, the media were not interested in this at all because they did not know what it meant. Even some people from the field at the time didn't think that the internet was the right way. We invited the press to the event but nobody attended."

How did you feel then, knowing that this had happened and the rest of the country didn't care and didn't know?

"By that time we didn't see the future... that in fifteen years everybody would have a PC and would be connected to a network. PCs were coming rather slowly. The first PC cost about 180,000 Czech crowns while the average salary at the time was about 2,000 crowns so it was difficult to imagine that every home would have a PC. So, for us it was really just a dream."

How long did it take for ordinary residents to be able to connect to the internet?

"It was difficult. Firstly, for one year only people in Prague and on the premises of the Czech Technical University were able to connect. We then built a CESNET network in 1992 or 1993 that connected universities only. The connection of ordinary people started with the dial-up modem in 1994 or 1995. We were told we need a license to charge people for the use of the internet but the Czech telecommunications' office told us that there was no mechanism with which to issue the license for the internet because it was very new. So, it took us about one year to solve this legal problem and my experience is that technical problems are easier to solve than the legal and economic problem because it is quite difficult to work with the ministries in many cases."

Jan Gruntorad is now head of the Czech academic network operator CESNET. And, by the way, the first media in the country to go online was Radio Prague. It launched its website on November 17 1994.