How Canada got online

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

If you’re reading this chances are you didn’t even consider how you got here; this page, on the internet. Web access is just something we’ve come to take for granted as natural in today’s age. But not so long ago information technology was in its infancy. In 1989, CA*Net was born and served as the backbone for computer networking in the country.

Canada needed a way to relay computer data much faster and designing a country-wide network was the way to do it. Specifically, there was a need for quicker transmissions for research. NetNorth already existed, which was a network that linked universities together through their campus mainframe computers. But many researchers wanted to move to TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol), a ruleset for computers to communicate that was used in the USA as well as many provinces. It was the right request too, since TCP/IP is the standard that eventually became the internet we use today.

The National Research Council had a special interest in using a network with these parameters since the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre made international headlines. It was one of three sites that would archive and distribute Hubble Telescope data. The NRC chose the University of Toronto to carry out the enormous task of engineering CA*Net, with help from IBM Canada and telecom carrier, INCINC. Dr. Andrew W. Woodsworth, an NRC astronomer, led the team.

Given that CA*Net was engineered with research in mind it wasn’t used for much beyond emails and file transfers. In 1993, Industry Canada created CANARIE, a not-for-profit organization meant to strengthen Canada’s competitiveness in all sectors of the economy and digital technologies.

The World Wide Web was born in 1994 and is the internet you’re using right now. Internet traffic would continue to increase and commercial entities would be providing everything needed for the web. CA*Net wound down from then on. CANARIE, however, still exists to this very day as a high-bandwidth private network for Canada’s research institutions. Its speeds can reach 100 gigabits per second.

While CA*Net’s time has come and gone it still holds a very important part in our nation’s development. It helped pave the way for the fastest communications system in human history and expedited the innovations of the early 1990’s. CA*Net brought the internet to Canada and allowed it to bring its research to the world.

By: Jassi Bedi

Profile picture for user Curious Canada
Curious Canada