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Roger Clarke's 'Infrastructure for Electronic Interaction in 1987'

Infrastructure for Electronic Interaction:
The State of Play in 1987

Notes of 12 August 2012, rev. 19 August 2012

Roger Clarke **

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1. Introduction

I've been preparing a paper on research into electronic interaction over the period 1987 to 2012. By 'electronic interaction', my intention is to encompass various movements such as EDI, electronic markets, eCommerce, eBusiness, eGovernment, eDemocracy, Web 2.0 and social media. I needed to provide a snapshot of what the relevant technological infrastructure was like in 1987, which in turn required a short retrospective look at those technologies. A particular focus is the approximate dates when the more significant communications technologies became available, and when they faded.

What follows is short (and hence necessarily superficial) and non-technical (and hence necessarily 'dumbed-down'). Within those constraints, it's intended to be comprehensive, comprehensible, useful and not unduly misleading. It's benefited from corrections by several members of the Link Institute (thanks in particular to Ian Peter, Graham Rees and Tom Worthington), and further feedback will be gratefully received.

2. Wired Infrastructure

The communications infrastructure on which electronic interaction (EI) depends began 'wired'. The pre-electronic 'optical telegraph' used such means as smoke-signals, fire, flags and shutters. Progress in the technologies of electricity, electro-mechanics and electronics during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the 'electric telegraph'. Services commenced in the mid-1840s, first in the UK and very shortly afterwards in the USA, with the first international connection crossing the English Channel in 1851.

The telegraph used variations in electrical impulses along wires to carry data, initially expressed in Morse code. By encoding an analogue representation of the human voice, telephone (distant sound) services emerged in the 1870s. From the mid-1920s until the 1980s, the telex network (abbreviated from 'teleprinter exchange') used typewriters for input and output rather than morse-key transmitters, and Baudot code rather than Morse.

A comprehensive, but US-oriented, account is in Huurdeman (2003). A comprehensive European alternative has not yet been located, but see Stumpers (1984) and Standage (1998).

3. From Voice to Data Transmission

During the second half of the twentieth century, the public switched telephone network (PSTN) was very extensive in all economically advanced countries, reaching to most homes and virtually all businesses. It was, however, designed exclusively for the transmission of an analogue representation of the human voice.

After a very long gestation period, fax (tele-facsimile) services had been rapidly adopted during the 1970s, to transmit images over the PSTN, primarily images of documents. These subverted the voice-analogue for which the PSTN was designed, in order to transmit the pixels that made up the images. Fax remained a mainstream transmission medium until the 1990s, even though it largely proved to be impracticable to extract text and data from incoming faxes.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, Videotex services were available using many different standards, such as Ceefax, Prestel and Minitel, typically supporting 1200bps down and 75bps on the back-channel . The only national service that achieved significant penetration (so to speak) was France's Minitel (1978-2012). (Like many other services, its success was primarily due to what the French called 'messageries roses' and the English-speaking world usually calls 'adult chat').

In the late 1970s, data modems (from modulator-demodulator) became more widely available, to convert data into the analogue form carried on the PSTN. Individuals and small organisations quickly harnessed dial-up, voice-grade lines to create bulletin-board systems (BBS), commencing as early as 1978. In 1987, modems operated at 2400bps, i.e. 2.4Kbps or 0.0024Mbps. It took until 1995 for modem technology to reach 56Kbps - although the achieveable speed was heavily dependent on the quality of the line. Early broadband services (primarily in ADSL in many countries) became economic for small business and consumers only from the late 1990s.

Large organisations that needed to transmit data among their various locations instead leased dedicated connections in order to construct what would now be referred to as physical private networks. These were based on proprietary standards such as IBM's SNA and DECnet, and on international standards such as Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN, at 64Kbps and 128Kbps), and X.25 packet-switched services. From about 1970 onwards, 'value-added network' (VAN) service providers had become available to corporations and government. For both technical and competitive reasons, VANs never achieved any significant levels of inter-operability. Under the onslaught of the Internet in the mid-1990s, they variously collapsed or converted into Internet Access Providers (IAPs) and Internet Services Providers (ISPs).

Meanwhile, new technologies were emerging that supported EI over relatively short distances. From the early 1980s, various proprietiary Local Area Network (LAN) technologies became progressively more available, faster, more effective and more affordable. By the mid-1980s, large organisations were migrating to standardised 10Mbps Ethernet (with 100Mbps versions available only from the early-to-mid 1990s and 1Gbps from the early 2000s). By 1987, organisations' PCs could talk among themselves, but the retro-fitting of communications capabilities to mini-computers was only just beginning, and it would take considerably longer for mainframes to be able to support EI with PCs.

For small business and consumers, however, and even university teaching laboratories, the only sufficiently inexpensive LAN technology in 1987 was Appletalk, at 230 kbps. Ethernet did, however, become economic for small business and consumers during the 1990s.

4. Packet-Switching and the Gradual Demise of the PSTN

Until the 1960s, the PSTN and all other networks were 'circuit-switched', with each segment along a path from sender to recipient committed to that pair of players for the duration of a session. A new approach emerged, which was more efficient in its use of scarce networking resources, because segments of the network did not need to be committed to a single user-organisation (in the case of leased lines) or to a single conversation (in the case of the PSTN). In packet-switched networks, messages are interleaved, so that the available capacity can be shared among many users (Davies 2001, Baran 2002).

In parallel, fibre-optic cabling became economic during the 1980s, as an alternative to twisted-pair copper and co-axial copper and/or steel cable, bringing with it vastly higher capacity. The designed-for-data, packet-switched, fibre-optic network segments, which were installed from the 1970s onwards, have been progressively replacing the designed-for-voice, circuit-switched, copper-based PSTN.

During the century-long period of dominance of the voice-oriented PSTN, powerful institutions had emerged, in the form of national PTTs (Post, Telegraph and Telephone authorities) and their international association, the ITU (then the International Telegraph Union). Resistance by those institutions, combined with restrictive regulatory environments, considerably slowed the emergence of data communications. The relegation of voice to an application within data networks took until the early years of the current century.

5. Unwired Infrastructure

The possibility of wireless communications arose towards the end of the 19th century. What was then called 'wireless telegraphy' emerged through the first two decades of the 20th century. Radio broadcasting, followed by television broadcasting, developed over the next three decades. Amateur radio operators ('hams') were using wireless technology for voice-interactions from an early date, with the world's first national association formed in 1910 (in Australia).

Through the 20th century, enormous progress was made in military, public, corporate and government uses of wireless technologies. However, the technical challenges, a lack of capacity, and competition for the limited electromagnetic spectrum, combined to hold back data communications as a major application area, for many decades.

Microwave was used by large corporations and government agencies for point-to-point communications from the 1950s, and by PTTs as a complementary and fallback transmission medium. However, the limitations on its capacity precluded, and precludes, it from more general use. Satellite communications have progressed steadily since the launch of the first satellite into geo-stationary orbit in the mid-1960s. Its characteristics, capacity and costs are such, however, that it is, and is likely to remain, a complementary technology, primarily for communications with remote areas.

Commencing in the mid-1980s, analogue cellular networks were being implemented in countries throughout the world, but were designed specifically for voice. They had the term '1G' retro-fitted to them as the successive waves followed, dubbed 2G (digital - early 1990s, associated with the GSM standard), 3G (early 2000s, associated with the WCDMA standard), and 4G (early 2010s, associated with the LTE standard).

The first data service over cellular networks was SMS / texting, from the mid-1990s, but with varying launch-dates in different markets. Early attempts to provide access to the Internet generally, and more specifically the Web, enjoyed only limited success. Although available in some forms from the late 1990s, widespread availability of Web-based EI commenced with smartphones on 3G networks in the early 2000s.

A wide-area wireless data transmission standard (X802.16 - WIMAX) has been emergent since about 2000, but to date its successes have been in niches rather than in the mainstream.

As with wired communications infrastructure, geographically localised data-specific wireless services (WLANs) have been delivered using different technologies from those applicable over wide areas. Wifi, based on the X802.11 series of standards, became widely available from the year 2000.


The available infrastructure to support EI in 1987 comprised the following:


Baran P. (2002) 'The beginnings of packet switching: some underlying concepts' IEEE Communications Magazine, IEEE 40, 7 (Jul 2002) 42 - 48

Davies, D. W. (2001) 'An historical study of the beginnings of packet switching' Computer Journal 44, 3 (2001) 152-62

Huurdeman A.A. (2003) 'The Worldwide History of Telecommunications' John Wiley, 2003

Standage T. (1998) 'The Victorian Internet' Walker & Company, 1998

Stumpers F.L. (1984) 'The history, development, and future of telecommunications in Europe' IEEE Communications Magazine 22, 5 (May 1984) 84 - 95

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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