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

I was not there at the start but I was an instigator of the restart and now its hard to tell if it’s another start or the start of the end.

BBN, once upon a time known as Bolt Beranek and Newman, was the first Internet service provider (ISP). In the beginning it was not called the Internet but the nation-wide ARPANET evolved into the Internet of today. Starting in 1969 BBN ran the ARPANET under contract from the US Government. Peaking at only a few hundred sites the ARPANET started to fade out by the late 1980s, being replaced by the growth of regional data networks interconnected with the NSFnet.

In this same timeframe it became clear to a bunch of us techies at Harvard, BU and MIT 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 we had to settle for the name NEARnet. While we wanted to be involved in the details of the network we did not want to run it and selected BBN to do so under contract to the Universities.

This began the second phase of BBN's involvement in the Internet which culminated in the acquisition of NEARnet along with a number of other regional networks, the formation of BBN Planet, and BBN becoming one of the largest of the US ISPs.

But a large ISP is still very small potatoes in the telecommunications world and BBN became an attractive trinket and was acquired by GTE in mid 1997. BBN is now externally visible as a "Powered by BBN" tagline in some of GTE's advertising. GTE Internetworking, BBN's new guise, is still one of the largest ISPs and is holding its own against the likes of UUNET, MCI and SPRINT. Now here 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. But I will admit that I worry about my friends at whatever will be left of BBN 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 their 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 cluefull of ISPs but I fear that when they come in contact with the oversupply of anti-clues in Bell Atlantic the result will be clue annihilation.

If my friends are strong enough they may be able to overcome their fate as an internal body part of Bell Atlantic. But my fear is that they will disappear into the morass or feel they have 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 to whimper but the above is my own worry.