08 February 2011

64 KBPS: When DLSL Became the First Educational Institution in Batangas to Go Online

In the present day, DLSL's web site is hosted on-site by robust modern-day servers.

Sometimes, it just blows my mind away how much the Internet has evolved in less than two decades; and particularly how its growth has impacted me and my work. I have a vague recollection of my former boss Brother Jun Erguiza FSC (DLSL President from 1993-95) calling De La Salle University - Manila long distance with his modem so he could read his electronic mail. This was only in the mid-nineties; but it might well have been the Jurassic Age as far as the Internet was concerned.

I remember having asked to look at his computer monitor; and I have this equally vague recollection of a blue text-based interface – ugly by today’s standards, but this was when colored VGA monitors were only starting to surface here and there around the campus and WordStar was still the favored word processor.  I would learn later that he was using a purely text-based computer application called TelNet.  At about this time, the Internet was something one read about here in Lipa but it was as mystifying as any tale from the other side.

Then, Br. Rafael Donato arrived to become President in 1995; and among the things he slightly regretted about being in Lipa was his inability to read his e-mail. Of course, being Br. Rafael, the way he talked about it, he made it seem as though reading e-mail was a matter of life and death. Was he not the capricious one, I used to think to myself.

Br. Jun Erguiza (center) read his e-mails by calling DLSU up long distance.

Of course, at around this time, electronic mail was likewise just something I read people used; I had yet to see one, let alone send one for myself. Mail was – as far as I was concerned – something one either scribbled or typed with WordStar, printed on a piece of paper and then slipped inside an envelope. Then one made a lightning trip uptown to the Postal Office.

Br. Rafael's solution to his e-mail dilemma was not to call Manila up long distance. Instead – as wasBr. Rafael's way – he said he would bring the Internet to Lipa. Of course, we all dutifully oooohhh-ed and aaaahhh-ed at this pronouncement being the proper citizens of a rural community that we were.  Albeit, the Internet was something hardly anybody in Lipa had a real understanding of.

It was just this thing one read about in the papers and magazines that people used to send and receive messages in a matter of seconds instead of days; and people could travel all over the world without leaving their seats by simply visiting these strange new things they called web sites.

But of course, Br. Rafael was already working to make good his promise… Behind the scenes, he was already negotiating to bring the Internet to Lipa; and by late 1996, a deal was signed with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Mosaic Communications or Moscom.

Since Moscom was a Manila-based company, the school’s Internet service was to be supplied by a newly-formed local franchise called NetQuest. The latter was, of all things, owned by a trio of Ateneo graduates with whom Br. Rafael became particularly friendly.  With the signing of the contract, DLSL thus became the first educational institution in Batangas to go online.

The signing ceremonies with NetQuest that brought the Internet to the Province of Batangas.

By the time the infrastructure was set up – we even had a very crude initial web site – Br. Rafael naturally wanted fanfare. So we held inauguration ceremonies at what was then called the MTDC Building – and now called the Diokno – to officially launch the school’s Internet service. He was beaming with pride in announcing to the small gathering that the school was connecting to the rest of the world by way of – drum roll, please – a “staggering” 64 kilobytes per second. Picture my tongue digging into my cheek.

These days, of course, at home I can reach download speeds of over 100 kbps (This article was written in 2011.  Presently I'm on fiber optics with 3 mbps) on a good surfing morning using my wireless broadband connection. I get upset when I only have 30 kbps, roughly half of that initial install for the entire school back in the nineties. Then, only a few offices were wired; so the 64 kbps was more than appropriate.

As more computers were acquired – and particularly as the school ambitioned to make the Internet accessible to its students as well by way of laboratories – upgrades were eventually made to the amount of bandwidth we had.

The initial upgrade was modest; merely a doubling of bandwidth to 128 kbps. Acquisition became subsequently more ambitious so that – at one point – guests from the St. Mary’s College of California found web surfing here substantially faster than at their own campus. In the present, students and offices alike enjoy a 14 mbps connection. This is more or less 219 times as much as the measly 64 kbps the school first acquired.

I have no idea if Outlook Express had already been developed; but my first experience with e-mail was by Telnet, a completely text-based software that was used for connecting to another computer. In comparison to the convenient and user-friendly GUI e-mail software we all use in the present, Telnet was god-awful and just plain ugly.

Somehow, I managed to teach myself the rudiments of HTML, the programming language of the World Wide Web. For some reason, I developed an abscess in one of my earlobes and could not come to work for four days. While at home, I amused myself by taking a peek at web site codes that browsers make conveniently available and eventually saw some sort of structure in them. Before long, I had built my first local web site, completely self-taught.

For some reason, designing web sites really captivated my interest. I found great joy in manipulating images and text in a page so that it became attractive to look at. Because I was also doing desktop publication – I could do PageMaker if I was blindfolded – I suppose web design was a natural progression. I really read feverishly on the subject; and before long I was confident enough to ask to take over the design and maintenance of the school’s web site.

Allan Lucero hopped over from NetQuest to become the school's first Network Administrator.
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In this regard, I really developed a close working relationship with Allan Lucero, a former student who became our first Network Administrator. I never would have grasped the Internet and what it could do without the help of Allan, who was always patient in explaining details to me and granted my every caprice where maintenance of the web site was concerned.

Another former student, Gil Panganiban, soon came in to help me with the programming of a subsection of the school web site, something we called Umpokan. This subsection is a story in itself. It started as a contact point for alumni and no more than a listing of e-mail addresses.

Of course, in the old days, spammers were of the sort who made meat loaf. When alumni in the list started complaining that they were receiving unwanted bulk e-mails, it was time to have a password protected system developed with the addresses hidden from plain view.

Since I was not a programmer, I left it to Gil to re-invent Umpokan. When I come to think about it, even the early version written in VBScript and rendered as classic ASP files was already a social networking site even before the term became fashionable. Yes, we were even way ahead of Facebook.

At the DLSL Information Systems Department.

I eventually had to let go of these favorite jobs-cum-hobbies as I became more and more engrossed in work upstairs. However, my fascination with the Internet and computer systems meant that I was involved in decisions that would take the school really into the twenty-first century where we wanted it to be.

I just visited the network operations center this morning and the staff there proudly told me all about the robust machines we have acquired that automate enrollment, human resource and finance, among others. Naturally, there was some discussion as well on bandwidth, and we all could not help but laugh at how much we have now compared to the 64 kbps that first connected us to the Internet.

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