The information age has early roots on the edge of the Great Plains with the work of John V. Atanasoff, a professor at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), who led the development of the first all-electronic computer in 1940. The growth of the information age in the Great Plains is especially evident in the spread of the global computer network known as the Internet.
The National Science Foundation's NSFNET, established in 1986, was instrumental in the rise of the Internet from its beginnings in the Department of Defense to its place as a worldwide communications system. The NSFNET was envisioned as a national computer network to connect researchers at universities to the newly established supercomputer centers and to each other. The network design consisted of regional networks connected to a national backbone. The NSFNET was remarkably successful and became the basis of the modern Internet. In the summer of 1986 the NSF funded the creation of MIDnet, a regional network in the heart of the Great Plains. The original NSF grant recipients were eleven universities (predominantly land-grant institutions) in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. In September 1987 MIDnet became the first regional network to be fully operational.
The first midnet network consisted of leased lines operating at 56 kilobits per second (Kb/s) connecting routers using the TCP/IP protocol at each campus to the NSFNET backbone through the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. Because of the land-grant character of the MIDnet consortium, all but one of the member institutions were located in relatively small cities lacking 56 Kb/s service. "Special assembly" by AT&T, the contractor for the communications lines, caused considerable expense and some delay, but final installation and testing of the lines were completed in September 1987, and midnet became operational.
The NSFNET and MIDnet grew quickly. By 1989 the NSFNET backbone had been upgraded to 1.544 Kb/s (T1) with the MIDnet hub at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Although MIDnet began as a university research network with a grant spearheaded by Doug Gale at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, it was soon evident that success would take the Internet far beyond its initial purpose.
midnet shifted from being a universitybased organization to nonprofit status in 1992. Two years later, MIDnet was acquired by Global Internet, a Palo Alto start-up company whose Network Services Division later was acquired by Verio in 1997. Similarly, the NSFNET was commercialized with the formation of the Internic in 1993 and its transfer to the private sector in 1995. Many businesses in the Great Plains contributed to the commercial development of the Internet. For example, MFS Communications of Omaha, Nebraska, pioneered fiber-optic networks in metropolitan areas around the world and established early commercial network access points (NAPS); and Ameritrade, also based in Omaha, began popularizing stock trading on the Internet in 1995.
The Great Plains Network (GPN) is the next-generation, regional, "Internet 2" network for research and instruction. GPN was founded in 1997, with many of the original midnet institutions. The increase in speed from the 56 Kb/s rate of the original midnet to the 155 megabits/second (Mb/s) OC3 and 622 Mb/s OC12 rates of the GPN illustrates the great and rapid progress of the Internet in the Great Plains.
The information age will influence greatly the future of the Great Plains. The Internet allows instant, broad communication of work, commerce, education, medical care, and entertainment, thus bridging in new ways the distances that both isolate and insulate residents of the Great Plains. This brings opportunities for benefits and risks of loss. The opportunities are in decentralization, allowing Great Plains residents to engage from distant locales in many more new and diverse activities. Given this new access, for example, the feasibility of economic enterprises locating in formerly stagnant small Plains towns is significantly enhanced. The risks are that communication technologies also create dynamics for efficiency that foster centralization of smaller enterprises from remote areas and for a general homogenization of regional distinctions.
Stephen E. Reichenbach University of Nebraska-Lincoln Carol Farnham Lincoln, Nebraska Dale Finkelson University of Nebraska-Lincoln