The Internet turns 30 in Mexico

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“This first message is a small step for us and a great step for the University,” were the words sent from CU to the US city of Boulder, Colorado, that July 20, 1989, when Mexico first connected to the Internet.

“That day the world celebrated two decades of the arrival of man on the Moon and, hence, the choice of that phrase so in the style of Neil Armstrong. However, although this marked the beginning of the era of the Internet for the country, few found out at the time: one, because we did not anticipate what would take us and, two, because the UNAM was on vacation, “recalls the doctor Gloria Koenigsberger, who played many doors to make this possible.

“30 years have passed and today it is clear to us the transcendental importance of accessing the network, but at the time few saw it as useful”, recalls the researcher from the Institute of Astronomy (IA), who at that time, when she was chatting about networks and interconnected machines, there was no lack of who asked him, and what is the use of a computer from the Faculty of Sciences to communicate with another one of Veterinary?

To understand such an attitude – explains the academic – it is necessary to go back to the second half of the 80s, that is, to times where computers were not part of our day to day and in which it was believed that they were laboratory instruments that only served to analyze data, calculate figures and solve equations. “Under this logic, those who did not devote themselves to science found very little sense in two devices, in remote geographical enclaves, to contact each other and share numbers.”

However, it was increasingly evident that Mexican telecommunications began to remain very small in a progressively more complex world, as Professor Koenigsberger had pointed out at the end of the 1980s, in his multiple visits to the San Pedro Mártir observatory, where in contact from the top of the mountain range, even in situations of life or death (as when a heavy snow cut the roads and left the installation without fuel for heating or food), it was necessary to resort to short-wave radio, or as when even being in the city of Ensenada could not phone the Federal District because of the expensive of making long-distance calls.

“We could even go back a few years, to 1985, after the earthquake, when people went to the airports in search of hostesses and pilots to deliver letters addressed to their relatives since the communications infrastructure had collapsed and there was no way to contact with the foreigner. I was not in Mexico on July 20, 1989, when that first connection to the Internet, but those words sent to the world were very true because that was a big step not only for the UNAM, it was for the country. “

With a view to the future

The antenna that made the first connection of Mexico to the internet possible is still anchored to the roof of the Institute of Astronomy. It no longer works, its huge white plate and 3.7 meters in diameter shows a small perforation caused by the impact of lightning and its abandonment is such that there are those who propose to rescue it as a historical object; However, despite the little maintenance it receives, “at the time it cost us $ 100,000, something that at that time was a true fortune,” says Professor Koenigsberger.

To say of the academic, it is necessary to remember that the 80s were marked by a  severe economic crisis that raised the dollar to such an extent that, of the 22 pesos in which it was offered in 1979, it reached 638 in 1986 and from there it jumped In addition, this was compounded by the complicated situation of the UNAM, which barely left  the student strike of 1987 promoted by the CEU and which was dealing with the tensions arising from the completion of a University Council that was He advanced pretty fast, so getting the sum was not an easy task and much less quick.

“This made it difficult to obtain resources, but fortunately there were those who saw the potential of this, such as Federico Kuhlmann, then head of the Postgraduate Studies Division of the Engineering Faculty of UNAM, or Felipe Bracho, who coordinated the advisers of the then Rector Jorge Carpizo. They seemed to see in this much broader horizons than I had in mind, and from that point, more and more people would join the project “.

On how he came up with this proposal to the authorities of the UNAM, Gloria Koenigsberger says that everything goes back to 1986, when he visited NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and learned that many astronomers did not need to travel to Maryland -as he did she- to reduce the data of her observations, since they could connect remotely to the Space Physics Analysis Network (or  SPAN network ) and perform all that work from a distance.

“I wanted to do something similar and I wrote to NASA without receiving an answer, since she only answers her peers and in Mexico, there was no counterpart for the space agency. Who contacted us was the National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns its own satellite network, the  NSFnet and, by corroborating that universities like the one in Massachusetts used the San Pedro Mártir telescope, and that many of our astronomers collaborated with theirs, they invited us to join us and gave us instructions on what to do. “

The treatment promoted by Dr. Koenigsberger was that NASA and the NSF would install an antenna at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado and that UNAM would do the same in CU, which would allow them to establish links satellite; In addition, it was specified that all computers should speak the TCP / IP (Transfer Control Protocol / Internet Protocol) language.

“The latter was a stroke of luck because the antenna itself was too expensive and this software was free … We were not in a position to raise costs further. The problem was that, although the NSFnet used American satellites to operate, we had to use the Morelos satellite, which only worked within the country. Technically, nothing prevented us from connecting with the United States, but cross-border communications were prohibited on a legal level. However, we found a legal hole: the refusal was for commercial matters and our project was academic-scientific. “

On the election of July 20, 1989, as the date for the first connection of Mexico to the network, Professor Koenigsberger clarifies that this decision was made in the United States, so she could not appear in the IA when everything happened. “Those who were were Susana Biro, Marco Ambriz, and Adriana Marroquín. I was at a conference about the atmosphere of hot stars – my research topic. But what did I do when I got to the AI ​​and saw that there was already internet? Obvious! Write an e-mail to a colleague. “

That 30 years is nothing

There are many publications that have accommodated Gloria Koenigsberger the epithet of “the woman who introduced the Internet to Mexico”, a description she usually takes with reservations because, as she says, “the technology was there and I did not introduce it. What I did was grind and grind my colleagues to make this first connection possible, because I knew it would be of great scientific value. “

As a protagonist of the irruption of the Internet in the country and a privileged spectator of its evolution, the academic believes that the most positive aspect is that we all have a container in which to cast our doubts and concerns. “For example, before if I needed a journal article for an investigation I had to request it in writing, someone else located it and, three weeks later, I received some photocopies, but I had already forgotten why I wanted them in the beginning. Today it’s not like that, it’s enough for me to type in Google the information I want and I have it instantly. “

However, to say of the astronomer, as well as there are luminous aspects of the network there are also very dark because cyberspace has become a fertile ground for the propagation of hoaxes, scams and false news, as well as a place where each minute the privacy of the people is violated.

“It scares me that if I search the computer for information about a Mexico-Tijuana trip, I immediately get pop-ups and spam emails from flights to Baja California. If the decision were in my hands I would have maintained the network as it was, for academic and non-commercial use only, but unfortunately, it would make it unfeasible, since there would be no way to finance it “.

Although the official entry of Mexico to the Internet occurred on July 20, 1989, the  Gaceta de la Universidad recorded the event until September  7 – “I already said, we were on vacation” – with a head that covered the front page and that said: “First satellite link in computation of the UNAM”, and with a note in which Dr. Koenigsberger is not mentioned anywhere.

On this adventure, the academic thanked the support of people like Federico Kuhlmann and Felipe Bracho, or Joseph Choy, who as a representative of the NSF led the work in Boulder and who in his  obituary (died in 2016) exhibits as one of his elder’s achievements have made Mexico enter the interred.

“Sometimes they ask me if when I pushed this I saw the future and what’s up! If so, I would have done with shares of the company that manufactured the router that we acquired for the AI, because at that time each cost one or two dollars and now they are worth thousands. If I had seen the future, I would have bought Cisco shares. “

Source: update mexico

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