A Brief History of the Internet in Australia
Superseded Version 2 of 12 July 1999

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 8 December 1998, rev. 12 July 1999

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1998-99

This document is at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/OzIHist990712.html

The current version is at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/OzIHist.html


It's not easy to find authoritative material on the topic of the Internet's history in Australia. The following is cobbled together primarily from an e-interview with Geoff Huston, key segments from Lance (1998), plus some memories of my own. I have yet to incorporate the additional elements in Sinclair ( 1999a, 1999b).

Readers not familiar with the elements of Internet architecture and process are advised to read this paper in conjunction with Clarke et al. (1998).

I stress that the expression, and the inevitable errors of commission and omission, are mine alone!!!

Please send me citations (URLs and hard-copy), corrections, suggestions, and information both attributable and not-for-quotation; so that I can improve this document.

In The Beginning ...

During the early years of the then DARPA net, about the mid-1970s, a few Australians made spasmodic connections to it via a dial-up service offered by the then Australian Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC).

Within Australia, from the mid-1970s onwards, Robert Elz at the University of Melbourne, and Prof. Bob Kummerfeld and Piers Lauder at the University of Sydney ran the very successful Australian Computer Science network (ACSnet, whose echoes are still reverberating in the form of the .oz.au domain). For interstate links, ACSnet used the other major network in Australia at the time, the X.25-based CSIROnet. (This was eventually sold off by the CSIRO. It operated for a time as a commercial service, and was gradually converted into a conventional, closed 'value-added network' or VAN).

In the early 1980s, a permanent Australian email connection to what was by then ARPAnet was established by Kummerfeld, Lauders and Elz. In the mid-1980s, Geoff Huston at ANU contributed an email gateway from the ACSnet mail delivery system into the VAX/VMS systems that had dominated University computer installations following their first implementation at Mt Stromlo in 1978. In 1984, the Top Level Domain (TLD) .au was delegated to Robert Elz, at Melbourne University.

Mail and news spread widely through the university and research communities in the mid-1980's. There were various attempts to set up a broader university network through that decade. One that nearly came to fruition was a Digital-assisted effort, SPEARNET, in 1985-86.


In 1987-88, a report (the 'Carrs Report') was prepared for the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC), proposing that the AVCC endorse, and provide pooled funding for, the establishment of a network providing data, voice and fax services. This report was widely criticised within the University environment. The AVCC took the decision to implement a national network, but deferred much of the technical work to a Working Committee chaired by Dr Robin Erskine of the ANU. The Steering Committee was chaired by Prof Ken McKinnon of the University of Wollongong. The intent of the Carrs report was embarked upon, but the details were changed quite substantially along the way.

In 1988, the University of Hawaii undertook a NASA-sponsored program to extend the research Internet to the Pacific Rim. Trevor Hales of CSIRO attended that initial meeting.

In late 1988, these two efforts coalesced, and the technical committee then had a clear concept of the viability of constructing such a network. Geoff Huston was hired in March 1989 as the initial Technical Manager of the network, and worked with Robert Elz, Robin Erskine and Ken McKinnon to prepare a financial, technical and business plan that was acceptable to the AVCC and its constituency. Approval to proceed was given in about May 1989, and the focus then shifted to funding models for the remainder of that year.

The NASA / University of Hawaii program came to fruition with a 56Kbps satellite Internet link in May/June 1989, terminating at the University of Melbourne. This link was complemented by a 48Kbps link to the ANU in August 1989, a 9.6Kbps link to the University of Sydney in August 1989, and a 48Kbps link to the University of Adelaide in October 1989. The scheme was referred to as the Australian Academic & Research Network (AARNet).

The AVCC secured Australian Research Council (ARC) funding for AARNet for 1990, and the entire network was rolled out to every Australian University and CSIRO over a 4 week period in April and May of 1990. It was an IP network, connected to the Internet via the 56Kbps satellite circuit funded by the Australian end plus University of Hawaiii / NASA at the US end. Individual sites were responsible for the management of their own connections to the AARNet routers. Geoff Huston became responsible for the second-level domains edu.au and gov.au. Robert Elz continued to manage .au, net.au, org.au and the ACSNet domain, oz.au.

The Early 1990s

Between 1990 and 1994, the excitement mounted, as a succession of services emerged on the Internet, including File Transfer Protocol (ftp) archives, archie (an ftp site indexing tool), the various 'gopher' systems (generic menu-driven systems), and Brewster Kahle's WAIS content search engines. By this time, Internet nodes worldwide, using text-based email, telnet, ftp and Usenet News, already numbered in the millions.

The World Wide Web emerged, courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee at CERN near Geneva. Its first, limited impact had been in 1991, with the viola and cello Unix-based browsers. By 1993, the CERN server and the NCSA's Mosaic browser were available, offering the same interface on Macs, PCs and Unix workstations. This started the explosive growth of the Web, and with it the next round of explosive growth of the Internet.

Driven by the this demand, the Internet quickly became attractive to people outside the research and teaching arena. AARNet permitted access to the first commercial Australian Internet service provider in 1992. This was connect.com.au Pty. Ltd., started by network engineer Hugh Irvine with Joanne Davis and Ben Golding.

In September 1993, Geoff Huston applied to IANA for a large block of addresses "on behalf of the Australian network community", with the ultimate goal of seeing a national IP address registry set up, both for regional autonomy and for efficiency (because allocations from the US were taking weeks). It was to be "a totally independent entity, which operates within the broad structure of a not-for-profit service operation, and applies a single community policy in an open and fair manner". The address space was large enough for over 4 million individual host addresses; an enormous amount at a time that large allocations were becoming increasingly rare due to the potential exhaustion of the IP address space (Lance 1998).

APNIC (the Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre) started as a pilot project in late 1993 based on volunteer labour and donated facilities from a number of countries. It evolved into the independent IP address registry so desperately needed by the Asia-Pacific region. APNIC has recently moved its headquarters to Australia but retains a strong regional focus.

The domain net.au was delegated to Hugh Irvine in 1994, and was administered free of charge by Connect for some years as a service to the Internet community. In August 1995 Michael Malone, from the Perth ISP iiNet, was delegated responsibility for the new second-level domain asn.au for associations and non-profit groups, also administered free of charge (Lance 1998).

By 1994, it had become apparent that usage was burgeoning, in some cases for purposes well beyond AARNet's express scope, and that an alternative business model was necessary. In 1994 AARNet access was opened up further to VARs ('value-added re-sellers', later more commonly called Internet Service Providers - ISPs) under a volume (per-MByte) charging scheme. Moreover, it was proposed that from 1995 full volume-charging for universities and research institutes would also begin. "The prospect of volume-charging to recover costs was violently argued, especially in the newsgroup aus.net.aarnet, which had previously been a fairly civilised source of information exchange" (Lance 1998).

The Mid-Late 1990s

In mid-1995, AVCC transferred its commercial customers, associated assets, and the management of interstate and international links to Telstra. Telstra thereby acquired the whole of the infrastructure that constituted 'the Internet in Australia'. This was variously regarded as the salvation of the net in Australia, a give-away or sell-out by the AVCC, and/or a naked grab for commercial control of the Internet in Australia (Fist 1997) - the passions it aroused reflected the importance that many people attached to Internet services.

The address block issued by the InterNIC on behalf of the Australian network community was claimed by the AVCC and passed on to Telstra. Because no independent registry existed, no allocation policy for provider blocks was defined. Telstra allocated to itself around one quarter of the address block and the non-Telstra portion was exhausted by February 1997 (Lance 1998).

During the period 1995-97, a competitive market developed, with both Telstra and Optus providing backbone services, and multiple overseas connections being run not only by Telstra and Optus, but also by several of the large ISPs.

Commercial use of the Internet continued to grow dramatically, and Internet Access Providers (IAPs) and ISPs proliferated. The international linkage represented a serious bottleneck during 1994-97, but gradually Telstra starting releasing additional capacity at something closer to the rate at which demand was growing, and several of the larger ISPs established direct linkages overseas. During the second half of the 1990s, the market rapidly developed into a complex, multi-layer network of network services.

AARNet itself pulled back to performing its original purpose. It became an internetwork of regional network organisations (RNOs, one in each State and Territory) connected to each other and internationally by Telstra Internet services, and serving the universities and the CSIRO. In mid-1997, a national private ATM-based network was established, linking the eight RNOs by high capacity dedicated bandwidth, having the capability of carrying voice and video traffic as well as data. Optus was selected to provide the network, and IP access services.

In 1996, as a response to the enormous workload of com.au administration, Robert Elz gave a non-exclusive 5-year licence to Melbourne-IT, a commercial offshoot of Melbourne University (which had freely subsidised the cost of Elz's labours on behalf of the Internet community for many years) to do the actual administration of com.au. Melbourne-IT started charging for domain name registrations in November 1996, at $125-$150 a year. At Connect, demand for net.au names exploded as they were seen as free alternatives to com.au names. After net.au administration almost collaped under the demand, Connect brought in charging at the same level as Melbourne-IT, to prevent the land-grab on net.au names (Lance 1998).

While Australians flooded onto the Interent, considerable contention was taking place in the background, both within Australia and in the U.S. During the second half of the 1990s, the context changed "from cooperative engineering utility to the frenzied focus of world-wide governments; from boring administrivia to commercial power-grab" (Lance 1998).


By 1996-98, the Internet in Australia had become mature enough that people became nostalgic, and started to write histories of it. The Telstra/AFR Web Awards inducted pioneers into the 'Internet Hall of Fame', a mere 10-12 years after their key work was performed (or should that say "40-50 web-years"?).

Yet, in the background, work remains to be done: "In late 1998, we still don't have a functional organisation to handle our .au top-level domain and its hierarchy. The system holds together because of the inherent engineering strengths of the DNS, and because of the trustees, the delegates who have put in years of effort maintaining one of the essential elements of Australian Internet connectivity" (Lance 1998).


ASTC (1994) 'The Global Connection: Future needs for research data networks in Australia: Draft Findings', Australian Science and Technology Council, April 1994 , at http://www.cit.nepean.uws.edu.au/docs/aarnet/ASTC/

Clarke R., Dempsey G., Ooi C.N. & O'Connor R.F. (1998) 'A Primer on Internet Technology', February 1988, at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/IPrimer.html

Fist S. (1997) 'The TelstraNet plans to take-over the Internet', May 1997, at http://www.electric-words.com/telstra/telisp.html

Lance K. (1998) 'The Domain Name System: Engineering vs Economics' Proc. AUUG Conf., September 1998, at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/LanceSep98.html

Sinclair J. (1999a) 'Everybody's gone surfin'', The Age, 19 June 1999, at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/Surfin.html

Sinclair J. (1999b) 'The Network Anniversary', The Age, 22 June 1999, at http://www.anu.edu.au/people/Roger.Clarke/II/Anniv.html



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Created: 29 November 1998

Last Amended: 12 July 1999

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