Sunday, August 05, 2012

Government spending: seeding the Internet cost $124.5 million, Morse's telegraph $30 thousand

On July 22, Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz wrote an article giving "full credit" for the invention of the Internet to the Xerox Corporation.  That article was embarrassingly inaccurate in denying the role of the US government, and there have been a spate of rebuttals.

Steve Crocker, Internet pioneer and current chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has summed up the roles of government and industry in an excellent article. He explains why the Internet could not have been created by private industry without government’s help and also points out that once the initial infrastructure was in place and its feasibility demonstrated, it was vital for industry to step in and develop products, software and services.

That initial infrastructure began with research and theory leading to the ARPANet, which demonstrated the feasibility of a large scale network. Critical mass and training were achieved when the government funded the spread of networking to universities through CSNET for computer science departments, the National Science Foundation NSFNet for connecting all US colleges and universities and the NSF International Connections program, which brought in university and research networks in 28 nations, most of which were in the developing world.

In a 1996 Communications of the ACM article Seeding Networks: the Federal Role, I documented the cost of that government effort. The ARPAnet cost $25 million, CSNET $5 million, the NSFNET backbone $57.9 million, connecting universities to the backbone $30 million, and the NSF International connections program $6.6 million. The US taxpayer got a pretty good return on an investment of $124.5 million.

The US government investment that led to the Internet paid a handsome return, but it was not the first federal networking investment. As we see here, in 1843, the US Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction of a line of electro-magnetic telegraphs under the supervision of Professor Samuel F. B. Morse in order "to test the capacity and usefulness" of the system he invented. He used the money to construct a 37 mile telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore, and, indeed, it turned out to be useful. That was a pretty good investment too.

Of course it is not only the US Government. Donald Davies was at the National Physical Lab in England when he coined the term "packet switching" and built an early test network and Tim Berners Lee was working at CERN, which was funded by 20 European governments and the European Union, when he invented the Web.

Update 4/21/2016

The Internet is one example where Federal funding of research has paid off handsomely. For other examples, see this post on Presidential science initiatives.