There's no connection between the Bell breakup & the Internet ­

A. Michael NollThe theory is becoming popular that the breakup of AT&T created the Internet. One academic claims the AT&T breakup eventually begat the Internet and a major consulting firm believes that the Internet would not have progressed to where it is today without the breakup. One can always rewrite history to fit their beliefs, but the Bell breakup did not beget, nor was responsible for, the creation of the Internet.

The facts are that the government asked AT&T to take over operation of the ARPANET in the early 1970s ­ and AT&T, believing that there was then no market then for packet-switching, expressed no interest. As a result, Bolt, Beranek, and Newman created Telenet to provide commercial packet switching in the early 1970s. This then evolved into the NSFNET, which then morphed into the Internet in the mid 1980s. The AT&T breakup occurred in 1984 but was not associated with the creation of the commercial Internet ­ other than both events occurring at about the same time.

A belief that competition is always the best approach might explain this theory about the creation of the Internet. The logic would be that since the Bell breakup was intended to foster competition, it therefore must have resulted in the creation of the Internet by breaking the Bell monopoly.

However, competition came to telecommunication long before the Bell breakup ­ and in many ways was the force responsible for the breakup, which settled a government antitrust case against AT&T.

Actually, it is questionable whether the AT&T breakup did much for competition. The old Bell System seems to have reformed decades after the breakup of 1984, with the creation of a duopoly in the provision of local communication service along with the same cast of providers who all seem to be members of the same old telecom family.

In terms of history, AT&T's Bell Labs had investigated early forms of packet-switched data rings long before the Internet. But the commercial viability of packet switching was not clear initially to AT&T and most other telecommunication providers. But AT&T did not take actions to impede the creation of the Internet. Nor did the AT&T breakup have any effect on the creation of the Internet.

Nonsense is sometimes misinterpreted as novelty and creativity. ­ Could this theory about the creation of the Internet be yet another example?

A. MICHAEL NOLL is a regular FierceTelecom columnist who writes frequently about telecommunication technology and business. Formerly a professor at University of California Annenberg, he also was at the White House in the early 1970s and was involved in decisions that commercialized the ARPANET--the precursor to today's Internet.