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Internet turns 40

According to an article in The Economist, the Internet turned 40 this month. As The Economist recalls, it was on Sept. 2nd, 1969, when scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) watched two computers transmit data from one to the other through a 15-foot cable. The success, the magazine reported, heralded the start of ARPANET, a telecommunications network designed to link researchers around America who were working on projects for the Pentagon.

The Economist continues: “ARPANET, conceived and paid for by the defense department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (nowadays called DARPA), was unquestionably the most important of the pioneering “packet-switched” networks that were to give birth eventually to the Internet.” But the Internet as we know it today still had to evolve to become what it is today.

The Economist continues its story: “Anyone with memories of using early online services such as CompuServe or Prodigy will recall how tedious it was to navigate their cumbersome menus just to send an e-mail or read a bulletin board. That all changed in 1991 with the invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau at the European Centre for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

“Within a year software packages such as Viola, Cello and Mosaic had made it possible for users to browse the web graphically, by clicking on highlighted links embedded in pages of information that would redirect them to other web pages, and so on. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Today, The Economist reports over a billion internet users worldwide.

And the Internet has become an indispensable tool to search for information, buy goods online and send e-mail messages to one another.

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It has revolutionized the way we communicate or indeed, by the way the social networks have boomed, the way we socialize.

But even these basic applications which already make me feel that the Internet is the best invention of my lifetime thus far, account for only a small fraction of Internet traffic. The bulk of the bandwidth is hogged instead by people downloading or swapping music, television shows and full-length movies, or playing online video games.

According to The Economist, YouTube streams more data in three months than all the world’s radio stations plus cable and broadcast television channels stream in a year. This is why the cable and telephone companies that provide access to the Internet, want to ration it, charge extra or even block heavy users altogether. This is why there is a current debate on net neutrality which The Economist calls Internet’s mid-life crisis.

To those of us who think the Internet is just another fad, another youthful phenomenon primarily in developed countries, new data gathered by Nielsen in the Philippines should help disabuse such perception. In a briefing I attended last Friday, I was told that approximately 30 percent of our population (or one in three Pinoys) now has access to the Internet. That’s up from 23 percent in 2007 and 21 percent in 2006, according to Jay Bautista of Nielsen.

It is also not just a young upper middle class thing because some 15,000 Internet cafes (only declared Internet cafes but excluding beauty parlors, laundromats, barbershops, fitness gyms with PCs for customers to rent while waiting for their turn) over the country charging as low as P5 an hour keep a good size chunk of the masa connected as well.

Facebook alone was supposed to have added a million Filipinos in its subscriber base in the last 60 days, boosting total Pinoys to 4.5 million. Friendster, the early social networking site before Facebook, has become the Daly City of cyberspace as it had been over run by Filipinos… some 47 million registered Pinoys, a figure I find hard to believe but was assured was true.

Multiply, another US-based site has so many Pinoy members that ABS-CBN bought equity in it. Multiply, I am told, is now becoming the online Megamall that could soon give the brick and mortar Megamall a run for its money.

And even in this developing country, the Internet is now big business. Mike Palacios of Havoc Digital said during the digital forum I attended last Friday that online games are now a billion peso business. As in the US, traditional content providers like ABS-CBN could make this even bigger and even more sophisticated pretty soon.

There is indeed money to be made on the Internet even by stay at home moms, a point expanded on by Janette Toral of digitalfilipino.com who has made the Internet a lucrative source of her own livelihood. I was pleasantly surprised to learn from her that the Internet has enabled so many Pinoy bloggers (from teenagers to senior citizens) an avenue to earn a living.

Next year’s election will prove to be a watershed moment for the Internet in this country, Mr. Palacios predicted during our small talk over lunch. The top presidential contenders are busy trying to see how they can make the Internet work for them the way it did for President Obama in the US.

Mr. Palacios is himself involved in Manny Villar’s campaign. The Noynoy-Mar campaign, animated by young people, is deeply into harnessing the Internet for mobilizing people and I understand, even fund raising in small peso denominations ala Obama. I have been following the Noynoy Facebook page and I have noted the infectious enthusiasm of the “fans” which should translate well at the voting booths.

For many of our countrymen in the socio-economic classes lower C, D and E, the Internet was discovered and embraced out of necessity. It made possible communicating with far-flung family members working as OFWs without spending a fortune. Beyond e-mail, the use of VOIP (telephone voice service over internet protocol) and such services as sight and sound through Skype and G-mail keep family and friends close despite distance.

I, myself, love the Internet for this. The Internet enables me to talk and see my children wherever in the world they may be at the moment without surrendering my bank account to the phone company. There was a time when my three children and my wife and I back home were in different continents so that the sun didn’t set on our family. The Internet was the lifeline that connected us at any time and with practically no time limit at minimal cost.

But the Internet today has captured our time and attention beyond any other medium of communication or entertainment. There are those who now prefer to watch their favorite television shows or movies via the Internet. Or read the newspapers on line too, for that matter.

Traditional media and telecom companies are finding it difficult to adjust their business models to the demands of this new age.

For us, based on what I have heard last Friday from the Pinoys who are most familiar with the use of the Internet as an effective business tool, it seems our regulatory framework is totally out of date. There is a lot of dependence on self regulation and peer pressure to keep users of the Internet from abusing and misusing it.

So far it is working and maybe leaving it as it is would be the better thing to do until such time when a new generation of computer literate Internet savvy leaders comes to power. For now, all you senior citizens who have not yet discovered the Internet should get in touch with Bayan Telecoms and ask how you can join their Teach Lolo and Lola How to Use the Internet program. If Lola Techie can do it, so can anyone her age.

Are you an Internet Geek

Signs you may be turning to an Internet Geek:

- Instead of calling you to dinner, your spouse sends e-mail.

- You’re amazed to find out spam is actually a food.

-You introduce your wife as “my@home.wife” and refer to your children as “client applications.”

- At social functions you introduce your better half as “my domain server”.

- When filling out any application asking for your address, you give them your IP address.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. This and some past columns can also be viewed at www.boochanco.com

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