Better Communication is Better for Mankind
Frode Greisen’s understated manner belies the vast influence he has had on the expansion of the Internet in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Iran, especially in areas where at times cooperation was unlikely and unwelcome.
“I feel lucky to have met with people who had vision and who understood,” says the Denmark native who, in the 1980s and 1990s, led the European Research and Education Network (EARN) and the European Internet backbone, EBONE. The development and deployment of both of these systems were fundamental to the modern European Internet.
How did someone with such impact get his start? “I had an affection for logic and mathematics,” says Greisen of his early academic career. Those pursuits led him to study the movement of electrons in metal. But his hoped-for physics career didn’t take off: “I knew about electrons in metal but not much else.” So he launched into business, selling IBM computers to the Danish healthcare system. That experience gave him a view into how other countries, notably the United States, were innovating with computers. It also pointed out important differences: in the U.S., the healthcare system relied on computers primarily for financial transactions; in Denmark, computers within the healthcare system were poised to do more and held the potential to create vital communications networks.
Those networking possibilities intrigued the science-loving Greisen, who didn’t want to spend life as a salesperson. With his growing knowledge of computers, he took a job in management of a university computer center. “At that time, around 1980, there was an international trend toward computer networking,” he notes. “The center was in one location but the scientists were spread out. I was helping organize the systems for the scientists.”
While he was at the computer center, Greisen was sent to join a meeting about building a European version of BITNET, the U.S. university network co-founded in 1981 by Ira Fuchs (IHOF 2017). The network Greisen and colleagues in other countries developed following that experience launched as EARN in 1985. EARN’s mandate was to create a non-commercial network for universities and research facilities in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Academic and research institutions could be full members of EARN if they agreed to host one node and connect their systems with other member institutions. EARN itself was connected to BITNET. “When I got my first message on EARN,” says Greisen, “I had an IBM terminal on my desk in Denmark and suddenly, I’m ‘in’ Germany. Desk-to-desk communication. I thought, ‘This beats the fax!’”
EARN launched with just a handful of nations in addition to Denmark: France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. Throughout Europe, Greisen faced significant challenges imposed by state-held telecommunications agencies and other government organizations. He facilitated lengthy negotiations with the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) to legalize the flow of data and equipment on the continent.
“And of course, at that time there was the problem that we couldn’t communicate with the Eastern Bloc,” says Greisen. The obstacles to communication included bans on the export of technologies that might be used in warfare, restrictions that included supercomputers. Connections to the Eastern Bloc countries didn’t come until after the fall of the Berlin wall in December 1989. EARN then expanded eastward, first to Poland in the spring of 1990 with the help of a colleague at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN). Czechoslovakia followed soon after with the help of the “father” of the Czech Internet, Jan Gruntorád (IHOF 2022).
“Africa and the Middle East were on the books from the outset,” points out Greisen about EARN’s expansion plans, and Israel as well was soon online. Greisen says his efforts to expand EARN to more and more nations was driven by logic: “It’s practical for science if we can communicate.”
As networks expanded globally, it became clear that the smaller EARN network would benefit from connections outside its membership. “We were connecting 300 IBM computers,” says Greisen. “Ok, maybe it was 1,000, but a lot of computing went on outside of those computers.” EARN merged with its sibling organization, Réseaux Associés pour la Recherche Européenne (RARE), to form the Trans-European Research and Education Networking Association (TERENA) in 1994. TERENA is now known as GEANT.
Worldwide communication was growing rapidly, but because most databases were still in the United States, even local European web traffic had to go to the U.S. and back before reaching its destination. “We said, ‘Well, that is all fine, but if there is communication from Denmark to France, why should it have to go through the United States?’” says Greisen. “We want the intra-European traffic to go by Europe because that’s cheaper and faster.” This perspective was the beginning of the thinking that built a European Internet backbone, or EBONE.
In the early stages of establishing EBONE, Greisen and his European colleagues set up a system where some parties provided links and others operated nodes connecting the links. “All parties could connect to a node and pay a fraction according to the bandwidth they got,” explains Greisen.
This work was a part-time endeavor for Geisen beginning in 1992 but grew into full-time work when EBONE was established as a profit-making company. “Initially, it was not supposed to make a surplus, it was just supposed to build a service for members and distribute costs and income according to use,” says Greisen. “I was happy that the board was not in it to make a profit. They were in it to have something that worked and provided better service all the time.” But in the eight years of its existence, EBONE did, in fact, make profits. It grew to link more than 100 Internet service providers in Europe, playing a critical role as the European Internet transitioned from an academic research network to the Internet used daily by hundreds of millions of Europeans.
Today, Greisen himself relies less and less on the Internet he helped expand. “I think in many ways we are over-digitizing.” Looking back on his contributions to connecting the world, Greisen says he still believes, “... scientific cooperation is good for mankind and better communication is better for mankind.” But connecting infrastructure to the Internet can be extremely dangerous”. And by the way, he continues in his understated way, “I see no need for my refrigerator to be connected to the Internet.”