The Internet’s Early History in Egypt: A Conversation with Baher Esmat, Part I


Access to Knowledge

Information Technology

2021-05-05 12:37:09 1535 0

Baher Esmat has been involved in the Internet and anything relating to telecommunications since 1993. Today he works for ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit organization that regulates Internet domain names and keeps the net running smoothly. Baher Esmat was part of the Egyptian Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) which brought the Internet to Egypt. As part of our center’s work on Inclusive Internet Governance, Stefanie Felsberger spoke to him last year about how the Internet was introduced in Egypt. We talk about Egypt’s first steps online and how access to the Web spread through the country and its people. This interview is part one of a series of conversations. Stefanie Felsberger: Since we decided to talk about the early history of the Internet in Egypt, let’s start with when and how the Internet came to Egypt. What institutions were involved in introducing the Internet to the country? Baher Esmat: As in many other countries, the Internet in Egypt didn’t start in the telecommunications area, but in the academic sector. The very first Internet connection was established in 1993 between the Egyptian Universal Network (EUN), a local research and education network, and the European Academic Research Network (EARN). At the same time, the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) which was the cabinet’s information center was also connected. Both EUN and IDSC started to offer and expand Internet connectivity to other institutions across Egypt: one to universities and the other to government authorities. It was all about raising awareness about this new tool. I remember we started working with IDSC in August 1993. We didn’t use the web, we only used the email and other basic tools. It was all about communication and getting people to communicate with universities and other entities abroad. In 1994, Cairo hosted a big UN International Conference on Population and Development, with over 15000 people attending. One of the prerequisites for the conference was to have an Internet connection. We realized that the 9.6 kb/s (it was an analog connection) would not serve the UN conference, so the IDSC established the very first digital connection. It was 64 Kbps. That was wow. That was the broadband of 1994. Initially, we planned to use this connection for the period of the conference only. It actually cost over $400,000, but the IDSC was able to convince the government to keep this connection as a gateway for the entire country to the Internet. The 64 Kbps remained after the UN conference and the following year we got an upgrade to 128 Kbps. This is basically how the Internet started. SF: Wow 128 Kbps seems pretty slow for current standards. Egypt’s average download speed is at around 4.02 Mbps today, which still isn’t very fast if you compare it on a global scale. When it comes to fixed broadband download speeds, Egypt ranked 146th out of a total of 150 countries in 2016. But let’s talk a bit more about the people who used the Internet for the first time. Who were they? It seems access to the first Internet connection was limited to a rather small group of people: academics and some government institutions. Could you talk a bit about who else got Internet access early on and how was this achieved? Again, through IDSC and RITSEC, we started as series of dialogues with community members and with folks who were interested in establishing Internet service providers. Back then, Telecom Egypt, known as ARAMTO, offered telephone services and international services but Internet was not on their radar. At the same time there were some folks from the private sector who were interested in these kinds of ventures. To make this happen, we needed to develop a framework to regulate this new environment. In 1995, we didn’t have a telecommunications regulator nor a law; the very first law that established the telecommunications regulator wasn’t passed until 1998. Through discussions between the team of IDSC, RIDSEC, and the private sector, the Internet cyber chapter was established in 1996. It was one of the very first chapters in the Middle East and Africa. Members of the community started to develop a framework to regulate the Internet and define roles for all parties involved. The model was simply as follows: Telecom Egypt would continue to offer infrastructure and bandwidth, IDSC&RITSEC would act as the main gateway in the country for the non-academic sector, and government entities/Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would get bandwidth through IDSC. The UN would continue to provide Internet service to the academic sector. By the end of 1996 around fifteen ISPs were established in Egypt and this number grew to over 100 over the following few years. That’s how we were able to spread Internet access in Egypt. SF: It’s so interesting to think that back in the day the Internet was completely unregulated, just like many aspects of the online economy are today, if we think of the current discussions about regulating artificial intelligence or the sharing economy. But let’s stay with the topic of access for a little longer. Could you tell us a bit more about how access was spread to the rest of the population? You already talked about what model developed to increase access and that people in the private sector were interested to get into the business of providing Internet access, but who were the people that went online? Who would have gotten access earlier and who would have gotten access later? Did people who lived in Cairo have access faster or was it more a question of affordability? BE: In the very beginning, when EUN and IDSC – RITSEC started to offer and promote the Internet, it was completely for free but only for certain communities. Individuals would not have been able to get access. You had to be an entity; a private entity, a business, or a hospital. People also used to share user data (user name and password): If I know someone who wants to explore the Internet, I could give them my username and password and they could get access, but this was very limited, only a few hundred people. Then as Internet service providers started to rise and the Internet population started to grow, a fee was charged for Internet access. Those who were interested, wanted to discover the Internet, and could afford to pay the service were connected. If I’m not mistaken, by the year 2000, Egypt used to have 100,000 Internet users; a small number compared to the population of Egypt. The Internet back then was not for everyone. It was for those who could understand and afford it. Even within schools and universities the Internet was not popular before 2000; AUC, for example, had a decent Internet connectivity, unlike other public universities. SF: Only 100,000 Internet users in 2000. If you calculate the percentage, that’s only 0.14 percent of the population. Today half the population uses the Internet. So, we spoke already about who the early adopters of the Internet were; that, first academia and government entities had access, followed by the private sector, and then slowly more and more people. I was wondering about what people did with the technology at the time? Also, once individuals started to use the Internet, what were some of the more popular social uses of the Internet in the early days? BE: At the beginning, I think people were exploring this new world – regardless of what sector they came from. I remember that sending very basic emails back then was a huge breakthrough. Those who worked in research were able to connect with researchers and academics anywhere in the world, rather than paying a lot for international calls or sending faxes which meant waiting for a response for days. Email itself was really a big thing for all of us, even individuals. I remember I used to communicate with my friends outside Egypt using email. In 1993/1994, you could not set up your business without having a fax machine. When the email arrived as a new innovation, it made life much easier. People in the private sector were able to communicate with their business partners outside Egypt. That was itself a huge thing. The other thing was the Internet as a repository of information. You could search for anything, even without Google. Back then we didn’t have google. I can also go back to the days before we had the web browser. We used to have services like Gopher, WAIS. These were very basic services: we used to download an application on our computer and write a keyword about anything and then get a list of hypertext, links. At least you had access to whatever information you are searching for. When the web browser technology arrived, I think that was the biggest development in Internet history; not only in Egypt but worldwide, because it actually changed the Internet all over. Through the web, people started to get access to all sorts of information. Skype came in 1997, but before that chatting tools made communication much faster and easier. These are more or less the kind of services that people used back then. SF: It’s good to remember how different the Internet looked like at the time. Today we are so used to an app-based Internet with platforms dominating our activities, but not too long ago the hyperlink was the most central part of the Internet infrastructure; something we wrote about on our blog before. Talking about platforms such as Facebook, I would like to direct the conversation to the economic opportunities that the very early Internet brought. You mentioned that there were attempts to bring businesses online and that in the beginning it was mainly about facilitating and speeding up communication. Who were the early economic innovators or businesses that used the Internet? BE: The early examples were the ISPs. The very first ISP that was established in Egypt in 1992 was called Intouch. They used to have their own international connection through Telecom Egypt and sell email services to clients. This is one of the very early adopters of the Internet in Egypt. Later on there was Internet Touch, along with other ISPs like or Starnet. There were quite a few companies selling connectivity and later on other value-added services like web services. Later on, some mergers started to take place. We saw several businesses coming out during the 90s in this field and I think they ended up being 4, 5, or 6 large businesses; by large, I mean in the scale of the Internet business in Egypt, not on a global scale. Towards the end of the 90s and early 2000s, we started also to see a few new businesses being established, offering value-added services and online solutions, but not too many. Ten to twelve years later, the Internet landscape had changed with more and more startups competing and new opportunities for tech startups, for example, startups trying to establish or transform themselves into a digital organization. You see this with newspapers and in the banking sector which started to offer online banking services in the past 10 years. We’ve seen this in many other sectors and of course all this opens new opportunities for new businesses and new innovations. This transformation really picked up in the past 10 years. SF: We’ll continue this conversation next time, to talk more about the regulatory aspects of the Internet. How did the institutions that regulate the Internet develop in Egypt and how does Internet Governance work today?