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A Second Start for the NLnet Foundation: Some History

(By Teus Hagen, Frances Brazier, Wytze van der Raay, and Jos Alsters; The board of the NLnet Foundation)

Back in 1982, the first UNIX-network in Europe was presented at the European UNIX Users Group (EUUG) conference in Paris. The centre of the network was located at the CWI, the Center for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam, Holland, and was set up by Teus Hagen and Piet Beertema. Piet Beertema, who maintained the UUCP software and the infrastructure, became the expert for a whole generation of network maintainers in Europe. Daniel Karrenberg, also at the CWI, was probably the first in Europe to introduce IP networking in the late eighties.

The number of national and international sites connected to the network at the CWI increased significantly, as did the amount of work involved. As a result, the European umbrella part of the network, EUnet, was separated from the Dutch national part of the network, NLnet. The responsibility for NLnet was given to the Dutch UNIX user group NLUUG.

Because the NLUUG was (and still is) an association with professional members that primarily organizes conferences, tutorials, and workshops, the increasing financial and operational involvement with the network exploitation soon became an unacceptable risk. To solve this problem, in 1989 the NLUUG founded the Dutch nonprofit organization Stichting NLnet to exploit the Dutch network. The NLnet evolution is in some ways comparable to the evolution of UUNET in the US. The difference lies in the type of organization chosen.

The Dutch organizational form `Stichting', literally `Foundation', needs some explanation for non-Dutch readers. Under Dutch law, a `Stichting' is an institutional organization, authorized by law and with a non-profit and somewhat idealistic objective. A `Stichting' does not have members. It has a Board responsible for all of its activities, which legally must be in line with its objective and written regulations.

One of the founders of `Stichting NLnet', Ted Lindgreen, has been heavily involved in maintaining and building the network from the start. As the first director of NLnet Holding, he designed and implemented the first national backbone in the Netherlands, using the infrastructure of the Dutch national railway. This was a significant accomplishment for that time.

By 1994, it became clear that commercial exploitation of the network needed to be supported by a more appropriate legal structure. To this purpose, NLnet Foundation established NLnet Holding B.V., a commercial company to provide high-quality internet access to both professional and non-professional users.

NLnet Holding, which started with 5 employees, has grown into the leading Dutch internet provider and had more than 90 employees at the end of 1997. The Holding has two daughters, NLnet Development and NLnet Services Amsterdam, and has acted as a leading party in several joint ventures, such as InterNLnet, a quality access provider for the consumer market.

A year after NLnet Holding was founded, it became clear to the Board of NLnet Foundation that further growth relied heavily on international connectivity. An increasing number of financially stronger competitors were appearing, resulting in competition in the national market and pricing below cost. Co-operation with a strong (both financially and technically) international partner was deemed essential. In 1997, negotiations with UUNET were finalized. During the negotiation phase, UUNET became a daughter of WorldCom. In August 1997, shares were swapped: all NLnet Holding shares were exchanged for a number of WorldCom shares.

Until then, the role of NLnet Foundation was that of the shareholder of NLnet Holding B.V. As a result of this transaction, NLnet Foundation became a very small shareholder in WorldCom. The Foundation no longer had any significant influence in NLnet Holding B.V.

NLnet Foundation now faces a new challenge: to initiate new activities using the newly obtained financial, commercial, and governmental independency. The possibilities to be explored will be in line with the original NLnet Foundation's objective. This objective, dating from 1989, is to "stimulate electronic information exchange." The current focus is on the independent (non-commercial) development and application of internet technology. NLnet Foundation aims to be a stimulating, but non-directive organization that supports initiatives for network development. In the next issue of ;login:, more definite ideas and further thoughts will be presented (A second start for the NLnet Foundation: Short Term Plans).