How the ERNET Project brought the internet to India


Story Highlights

  • In its first avatar, the ERNET Project involved eight institutions including IISc, Bengaluru, National Centre for Software Technology, Mumbai, five IITs and the DoE, New Delhi
  • By 1992, ERNET had grown big with universities in Bengaluru, who dialled in to use the networking service. It had become the country’s first ISP
  • Currently, ERNET India serves more than 1,300 institutions across the country

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India today has the second largest number of internet users in the world with about 350 million people accessing the internet, either through their smartphones or computers. With the advent of fibre optics and 4G technologies, the race for providing internet services is hotter than ever. Today, there are close to 20 active internet service providers (ISPs).

If you time-travelled 30 years into the past, when India had a few premier educational institutions and the internet was in its infancy, would you wonder how these institutes were connected? The Education and Research Network, or better known as the ERNET Project, served the purpose of connecting the different academic institutions across the country and introduce research in networking in the country. ERNET was initiated in 1986 by the then Department of Electronics (DoE) (today’s Department of Electronics and Information Technology — DeitY) and the United Nations Development Programme, with funding support from the Indian government.

Although the ERNET Project was initiated to set up an inter-campus network, it had evolved into the country’s first attempt at exploring the internet  

In its first avatar, ERNET involved eight institutions as participants including the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, National Centre for Software Technology, Mumbai, five Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and the DoE, New Delhi. Its first task was to set up a local area network or LAN, which meant networking the computers within the campus of an institution, and then connecting the LANs using a wide area network (WAN).  Thus, an inter-campus networking service was created, providing an opportunity for many to work with computers.

“In June 1986, when the ERNET Project proposal was being finalised, I saw a computer for the first time in my life and started to learn the very first day,” recollects Chandrika Shridhar, who worked on the ERNET Project from 1986 to 2016. She was one among many who picked up networking skills and got involved in research in computer networks since then.

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Setting up an email server at IISc was a breakthrough and it involved laying more than a kilometre of ethernet cables

As the next logical step, the IISc aimed to provide email access to its various departments using the Unix to Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP), a predecessor to the currently used TCP/IP that is used to connect computers to the internet. UUCP served as the backbone for sending and receiving emails and could also dial in to a similar system in US — the UUNET — and exchange emails with universities there.

Setting up an email server at IISc was a breakthrough since it was the first of its kind in the country, and laying the groundwork was an arduous task, involving laying more than a kilometre of ethernet cables, some of them running underground, that connected the systems in different departments.

“In June 1986, when the ERNET Project proposal was being finalised, I saw a computer for the first time in my life and started to learn the very first day” — Chandrika Shridhar, worked on the ERNET Project from 1986 to 2016  

ERNET evolved over time under the guidance of professor Anurag Kumar, the current director of the IISc, who became the ERNET Project coordinator in 1988. Kumar’s expertise in computer networking came from his days at Bell Labs Inc in the US, which was at the forefront of networking research back then. After returning to India, he took up the task of setting up the campus-wide network at the IISc. “Although the internet started in the 70s, it took some time to come to India. There was also a need for inter-campus networking and networking among the universities to coordinate their research efforts. ERNET was a nationwide package that connected different universities in the country,” says Kumar.

Also read: Remembering Atul Chitnis, internet pioneer and fierce open source warrior

By 1992, ERNET had grown big with universities in Bengaluru, who dialled in to use the networking service. It  had become the country’s first ISP. With VSNL (now Tata Communications), internet access to households was started in 1995, three years after India’s academic institutions had full internet access through ERNET. In 1997, the final project review was done and the expert panel concluded that the project was a success, with UNDP praising the project as one of the most successful initiatives it had funded. Following this, in 1998, the ERNET Project became ERNET India, an autonomous society under the DoE.

“There was also a need for inter-campus networking and networking among the universities to coordinate their research efforts. ERNET was a nationwide package that connected different universities in the country” — Anurag Kumar, director, IISc  

Although the project was initiated to set up an inter-campus network, it had evolved into the country’s first attempt at exploring the internet. But the lasting legacy of the project is in training a generation of individuals skilled in data networking. As Gopi Garge, a professor who worked on ERNET between 1988 and 2016, puts it, “ERNET was an experience of my lifetime. Networking learnt right through as it evolved, and being there and doing that, is priceless.”

After the formation of ERNET India, the focus has now shifted from research to providing internet services. Currently, ERNET India serves more than 1,300 institutions across the country, and apart from providing internet services, it also provides consultancy, project management, and services such as web hosting and e-mail.

So, with internet now being a commonplace thing, what next? The time is now ripe to ride on the wave of Internet of Things (IoT), say the experts. “The current government is pushing for IoT through startups. This is good but there is no overall coordination among the different researchers and institutes,” says Kumar. “We need to have a consortium of the startups and researchers to advance research in the field. IoT is similar to ERNET in the 80s, still in its infancy. It would be worthwhile to have an ERNET like effort for IoT.”

Also read: Mary Meeker’s 2017 internet report on India: Poised for growth, but challenges remain

 


The ‘Science Language’ series is sourced from ResearchMatters.in, a portal that aims to make science accessible to mainstream audiences. The articles here may have been run past the researchers whose work is covered, as in common practice in science journals, to ensure accuracy.