Geoff Huston was born the year television arrived in Australia. But his parents wouldn’t let him watch. While he sometimes snuck away to friends’ houses with TV, Huston says his deprivation forced him to read. Through books, he developed a love of words, a love that oddly enough led him to become the father of the Internet in Australia.
The Internet Hall of Fame inducted Huston as an inaugural member for his crucial work to get Australia online in the late 1980s. While he’s honored to be included, Huston says the credit is overblown. He says he just happened to be the geek who could speak.
“When geeks came together, I guess I was just articulate about stating what we wanted,” Huston says. And what they wanted was simply to connect.
Back in the proto-Internet early ’80s, Huston says connecting wasn’t so simple. Network techs were locked in what he calls the “great protocol wars” over which was the best technology to allow computers to talk to each other. Then multi-protocol routers came along and made that debate pointless. Universities began building networks on their campuses. Huston and others believed the next logical step was to connect those campus networks together to make a nationwide system.
“My contribution wasn’t very technical. I relied on everyone else to do really cool stuff,” the 55-year-old Canberra resident says. “I was just orchestrating, sweeping people along and talking about what we could do.”
The universities supported the idea when they learned the entire setup wouldn’t cost more than about $1.5 million U.S. annually. After about a year of planning, Huston and a colleague went from campus to campus handing out routers. The country’s public higher education system included about 40 universities, hardly a complex problem by current networking standards. After about three weeks of installing equipment, in late May 1989 the network went live, and the Internet in Australia was born.
At about the same time, NASA was looking to expand the reach of its network to ensure its researchers in far-off places could communicate with the U.S. Huston says a colleague at the University of Hawaii with connections at the space agency promised that if Australia’s tiny Internet community got organized, he could supply a satellite link to connect the country’s small inter-university network to the rest of the world.
As soon as Australians discovered the ease of global online communication, Huston says “the thirst was just unquenchable.”
“We started going down the path of build, build, build as fast as we could,” he says. The money for expansion came easily, and Huston says that within five years the university vice chancellors who had overseen the simple project to connect their campuses found themselves running full-blown commercial operations as vendors sought ways to bring dial-up service into homes. Finally Australia’s then-national telecommunications company Telestra realized they were missing an obvious business opportunity and bought the network infrastructure from the universities. Huston came along as part of the deal.
In 2004, he left Telestra to become chief scientist at the nonprofit Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, where he has become a vocal critic of telecoms worldwide for trying in his view to strangle the openness of the Internet. Huston says the exhaustion of addresses used to designate locations on the Internet under the decades-old protocol known as IPv4 is still a threat, despite the rise of IPv6, a protocol Huston helped to develop in a process he describes as flawed. IPv6 will supply many more addresses, but Huston says telecoms have little incentive to invest in adopting it, since an address shortage would give companies the power to ration Internet traffic and charge a premium for easier access.
“We’re going to rip neutrality apart, and ultimately we’re not going to have one network anymore. We’re going to have a bunch of mini corporate networks like the 1980s,” he says.
Yet Huston doesn’t regret the telecom takeover of the network he and his geek cohort birthed more than two decades ago. He says only Telestra could have enabled interconnectedness on such a massive scale in Australia. “I truly thought if there was one company that could truly wire up every household, it was the phone company. I went there to wire up everybody, and blow me down, they did that.”
The Internet has had an especially transformative effect on Australia, or what Huston affectionately refers to as “a small, isolated community of 22 million folk in the ass-end of the south Pacific.” For his parents’ generation, letters out of the country could still take months to travel, and international phone calls were nearly impossible. Coming to Australia meant cutting yourself off from the world. Among the many consequences, he says Australian scientists and researchers felt like second-class global citizens who needed to leave to get any important work done. For Huston, that feeling changed in the mid ’80s when he discovered a technology that anyone with a smartphone now takes entirely for granted.
“What just blew me over was email. We were doing it with cobbled up modem systems. It took us two days to get a message to the U.S., but holy shit, two days and it cost us nothing?” he says. “I wanted more, and I wanted it for everyone else.”
Written by Marcus Wahlsen, Wired Business, @marcuswohlsen