Internet Day Internet Day

Internet Day

When Italy discovered the Web

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The date is April 30th 1986: CNUCE (Italy’s National University Centre for Electronic Calculus), in Pisa, sends out a four-letter signal. The same signal, transferred at a speed of 28kbs, is channelled through the Telespazio antennas and travels to the station of Roaring Creek, Pennsylvania via the transatlantic satellite network Satnet. Once it reaches its destination, it marks the beginning of a new era: Italy officially enters the age of the Internet.

Much of the credit for that successful experiment goes to CNUCE, one of the most prestigious technological institutes in the world, and to the team of Italian scientists in charge of it: director Stefano Trumpy, Luciano Lenzini, Antonio Blasco and Marco Sommani. But credit is also due to the founding fathers of the ‘Arpanet’ – Internet’s original moniker – Robert Khan and Vinton Cerf, who kindly gifted Italy with a ‘Butterfly gateway’, a 200-processors piece of hardware, without which the country couldn’t have joined the game.

Khan and Cerf’s gift to Italy represented a mark of respect towards the CNUCE scientists and the technological advancement of the country as a whole – which, on April 30th 1986, became the fourth nation in Europe to join the Net, after England, West Germany and Norway. The Italian Internet Day marks the anniversary of that special day, thirty years ago; celebrating the country’s glorious past, and laying the foundations for a future in which Italy may regain its central role in the world of innovation, as one of the nations that originally spearheaded the online movement.

From Videotel to Fibre Optic

Before the inception of the Internet in 1986, Italy already had a similar system in place, a sort of ‘Internet before the Internet’. Technology geeks could connect to niche local networks and browse text pages and databases or exchange computer messages via rudimentary chat rooms. The most famous of these early examples is the Videotel: a monitor with a built-in keyboard, which connected to the phone network via a 1200-baud modem.

SIP – now TIM – launched Videotel in 1985, hoping it would achieve a similar success in Italy as Minitel had in France (effectively the only nation where this type of system reached mainstream popularity). Unfortunately, Videotel was met with a lukewarm reception (at the height of its popularity only 180.000 users had subscribed), although the system offered a valuable platform to early online communities, as well as the first Italian multiplayer games (including cult game Necronomicon).

In a way, Videotel never really had a chance: a mere year later, Italy accessed the Internet for the first time, registering its first domain .it as early as 1987 (following a request put forth by CNR). With the invention of the World Wide Web, in 1991, it became clear that a revolution due to change all our lives had already started to take place on the screens of our personal computers. However, it would take a few more years before the Internet became commercially available in Italy. In 1994, Sardinian entrepreneur Nicola Grauso launched Video On Line, the very first all-Italian Internet Service Provider (ISP). Video On Line provided online access by minidisk (sold as a supplement to the major Italian weeklies, such as Topolino or Panorama), or by ringing a freephone number for a free starter pack. After a year of activity, Video On Line had reached 15 thousands customers, approximately 30% of Italian telephone users.

More Italian ISPs started up around the same time; among them, Telecom On Line was the most important, second only to Video Online. In 1996 Telecom took over Grauso at the helm of Video On Line, launching Tin.it (Telecom Italia Net), which many Italians remember as the first truly popular provider. Crucially, in the same year, 56k modems became commercially available, drastically improving connection speeds from the original 30kb.

As it often happens with new innovations, the following years saw a real leap forward in Internet technology, as connection speeds began improving at a very fast rate. In 1996, Telecom Italia was the first company to bring Fibre Optic into the country, as well as launching ADSL in 1998. Surfing the net became incredibly fast, with the popularity of flat rate contracts also on the rise, given the pervasive role now played by the Internet and the web. Users, too, were rapidly growing: from 2 millions in 1997, to 5 millions in 1999, 12 millions in 2002 and 17 in 2007. The most recent data highlight numbers between 30 and 35 millions –taking into account the rapidly expanding mobile industry.

Over the last 15 years Internet technology has gradually migrated onto the mobile platform: from early Wap handsets (in the 2000s) to the new 4G/LTE devices, tablets and smartphones that are now used more often than computers in Google searches.

The Future: education, ultra-broadband and smart cities

What do we wish for the future, then? First and foremost, for digital alphabetisation to become a crucial component in education. Institutions have already been investing their resources and activities in this direction; ‘Programma il Futuro’ (Program the Future) a project devised by MIUR, fostered by CINI and sponsored by Founding Partner TIM, aims at introducing coding and computational thinking to primary and secondary schools across the country.

Among the range of initiatives developed by TIM, TIM4Coding offers a number of one-day masterclasses to teach thousands of students the basics of coding using simple and fun tools, under the expert tuition of TIM volunteers. This year TIM4Coding reached 197 cities, and over 47 thousands students in its three editions.

On the technological front, Italy’s next challenge is to disseminate ultra-broadband infrastructure across the country. Not long ago, the government announced that by 2020 100% of the national territory is expected to be covered by 30mbs fibre optic, 50% by 100mbps. The success of this strategic project is pivotal in ensuring Italy advances into a future where the role of the Internet is only destined to grow exponentially.

The ‘Internet of Things’ is the web’s next frontier: everything that surrounds us will be connected, from houses to cars, streetlights and recycling bins. In the future, cities will become smart cities: connected to the Internet and more efficient, clean and affordable, thanks to the role played by Big Data.

Last year’s EXPO offered an invaluable chance for punters to experience an early experiment in digital smart living, thanks to another project fostered by TIM and produced especially for the Milanese Universal Exhibition. Tim’s digital smart city featured augmented reality, interactive totems, Wi-Fi public connections and control headquarters that could handle the influx of visitors using Big Data. The success of the installation goes to show how far the net has come since that first four-letter signal, sent out thirty years ago from Italy to the U.S., which sparked a revolution in the world of information. There is much more to it: tomorrow, it’ll turn our cities into the stuff of science fiction.