Hero’s honour for internet’s decision maker

22 Nov 2007

Dennis Jennings of Fourth Level Venture will tonight be recognised as Internet Hero at the Eircom Golden Spider Awards for his role in the fateful decision in 1983 that led to the internet that we know today.

Back in 1983 while most of us were being asked to tighten our belts as the country’s bleak economic outlook trundled on, Irishman Dennis Jennings had to make a decision that would eventually have far-reaching social, scientific and economic implications not only for the world but Ireland too.

Today, Dublin is the envy of the world with major internet companies like Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and eBay employing thousands between them.

Few realise that the internet as we know it was made possible by Jennings’ decision in 1983 when he was in charge of the supercomputer programme at the National Science Foundation in the US to deploy a protocol known as TCP/IP in a network linking various university research departments in the US.

Tonight Jennings will be honoured with the Internet Hero award at the Eircom Golden Spider Internet Awards not only for the critical decision he made but also for his guiding hand in shaping the internet industry in Ireland.

Asked if he understood the importance of his decision in 1983 Jennings responds: “I had no idea it would grow into the internet that we know today and which is essentially now the communications infrastructure for the world.

“We certainly knew we were doing something significant. It was an ambitious idea to connect all 304 university campuses in the US to a network within a matter of years.”

What Jennings had done was effectively make the decision between a standard known as OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) and TCP/IP which was created by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn in the Seventies. Until that point, the internet existed in the form of Arpanet and was in the hands of the military and scientific community. Jennings’ decision made the internet available to the world.

He describes the decision and his involvement as not so much as a “eureka moment” but a battle in persuasion, coercion and perseverance. “I had to work out the best way of connecting the universities and indeed there were problems and some compromises made. But when you’re the guy with the budget you can be very persuasive.

“What I did was not rocket science, someone would have eventually come along and have come to the same conclusion.”

With a budget of US$17m Jennings was persuasive but he describes the reaction from universities as “screams of horror” because it meant them having to fund campus networks of their own. This changed when Cornell University in the US decided to wire up the state of New York.

“It has surprised me that the internet has scaled up from a university network to what it is today, a commercial thing that entire economies are beginning to depend on and that is impacting people’s lives in a personal way in terms of entertainment and buying things.”

When he returned to Ireland he was head of the Computer Services Department at UCD and was involved in the establishment if the .ie Domain Registry (IEDR).

As an astute investor he was involved in the start-up of companies like Baltimore, Euristix, Ntera and WBT through his investment vehicle Fourth Level Ventures which he founded with Ray Naughton.

Earlier this year it emerged that Jennings was appointed to the board of ICANN – a rare honour for an Irishman. “It was a pleasant surprise and I felt the time was right to get back into the international arena.”

Equally pleasant a surprise is winning the Interne Hero award. “In Ireland the definition of an expert is a man from the next parish or a man ‘outstanding in his field’. But jokes aside it is the icing on the cake to be honoured in your own country,” Jennings concluded.

By John Kennedy