The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Getting smaller by getting bigger

By Scott Bradner

Network World, 08/10/98

I was not there at the start of BBN's network business, but I was an
instigator of the organization's restart. Now it's hard to tell if BBN is
having another start or the start of its end.

BBN, once known as Bolt Beranek and Newman, was the first ISP.
In the beginning, the Internet was called the nationwide ARPANET,
and starting in 1969, BBN ran the ARPANET under contract from the
U.S. government. Peaking at only a few hundred sites, the
ARPANET started to fade away by the late 1980s, replaced by
fast-growing regional data networks interconnected with the NSFnet.

In this same timeframe, it became clear to a bunch of us techies at
Harvard, Boston University and M.I.T. that we could put together
one of these regional networks of our own. We wanted to call it the
NorthEast Regional Data NETwork, but the powers that be objected
to the acronym and settled for the name NEARnet. While we wanted
to be involved with the network's details, we did not want to run it
and selected BBN to do so.

This began the second phase of BBN's involvement in the Internet.
The company eventually bought NEARnet along with a number of
other regional networks, formed BBN Planet and became one of the
largest ISPs in the U.S.

But a large ISP is still small potatoes in the telecommunications
world, and BBN became an attractive trinket that was snapped up by
GTE in mid-1997. BBN is now externally visible thanks to a
"Powered by BBN" tagline used in some of GTE's advertising. GTE
Internetworking, BBN's new guise, is still one of the largest ISPs.
The company is holding its own against the likes of UUNET, MCI
and Sprint.

Then along comes the announcement that GTE is about to merge with
Bell Atlantic, with GTE's Internet prowess noted in the press releases
as a key asset of the new combined company. I have to admit that I
worry about my friends at whatever will be left of BBN when it's
buried deep inside of a traditional local telephone company.

Traditional telephone companies have demonstrated a remarkable
inability to understand the Internet. Their fears, misunderstandings
and assumptions could fill a black hole. In general, considering carriers' level of understanding, they can be said to possess an excess of "anti-clues." With all of its history, BBN is one of the more clued-in ISPs. But I fear that when BBN come in contact with Bell Atlantic, the result will be clue annihilation.

My friends may be strong enough to overcome their fate as an internal Bell Atlantic body part. But my concern is that they will disappear into the morass or feel they have to escape from the land of the living Dilbert cartoon, and what was BBN will fade away without even a whimper.

Disclaimer: Harvard tends more to bravado than whimpering, but the above is my own worry.