Building On-Ramps to the Information Superhighway

By Wm. Auckerman

You've heard about the Internet from your colleagues in the US. You've read about it in everything from Wired to the Wall Street Journal. You've even bought Fodor's Guide to the Internet and learned all the popular destinations and most convenient routes to travel. So now you're ready to start your first j ourney through cyberspace -- but if you're in Japan, how do you steer your modem onto the highway?

Commercial Internet did not arrive in Japan until autumn 1993. InterCon International KK (IIKK), the Japan subsidiary of the US-based InterCon Systems Corp., provided Japan's first commercial Internet connection in mid-September. And TWICS, an electronic networking system operated by NichiBei Kaiwa Cakuin (the International Education Center) was IIKK's first customer, achieving full Internet hookup by mid-October. It was thus through TWICS that the general public was first able to access the Internet fro m Japan. And while numerous corporations here are now connected to the Internet via their own dedicated lines, TWICS was for six months the only site in Japan through which individuals and small companies could achieve full Internet access.

The information superhighway The Internet is part of an ongoing information revolution. The current stylish metaphor is to term it "the modern information superhighway." But like any superhighway, the Internet has limited access points. If you're lucky enough to work for a large corp oration or attend a university that can afford leased lines, you can travel through cyberspace by that route. Otherwise, the only way to access the Internet is through a dial-up access site. There are numerous low-cost (or even free) access points in the US, but given the amount of time that many of us spend motoring along the Internet Infobahn, long-distance phone charges can soon grow excessive.

"Everyone talks about the information data highway," says Thomas Caldwell, managing director of CFI Associates KK, "but many people are forgetting that you need on- and off-ramps. If you're a big corporation that already has leased lines to America, you' re part of the highway. But if you're a little company like you or me, you need to get 017 and off. TWICS is one of the first on- and off-ramps in Japan for the information data highway."

One reason for the lack of local public entrance ramps to the information superhighway is the high toll. International leased lines are expensive; the infrastructure, corporate profit margins, and government regulations and tariffs raise communications c osts in Japan to at least 5 to 6 times those in the US. So while the amount that TWICS charges users-5,000 yen ($48.50) per month for up to 20 hours on-line (in addition to which the caller must pay local or long-distance perminute phone charges)-may seem outrageous by US Internet standards, it's probably the lower end that we can expect in Japan for the near future. "Some people complain about the cost," says Roger Boisvert, former McKinsey and Co. consultant and president of IIKK during the whole of its brief existence (IIKK was purchased by Performance Systems, Inc., PSI, in January of this year). "it's hue that TWICS is expensive in comparison to the US, but remember TWICS has to pay international access charges. Those leased lines cost an arm and a l eg. Someone has to pay for an international connection one way or another. You can pay KDD or its competitors [to connect with a US Internet access provider], or you can pay TWICS."

The number of persons now using the Internet in Japan is just 1/1000 of those connected in the US, and the discrepancy between numbers of commercial users (as opposed to members of the academic and research communities) in the two countries is even great er. Trailblazer TWICS has made little effort to solicit new customers (because it is still in the process of acquiring and installing new equipment and software to cope with larger numbers), but in just a few months it has grown from 400 users to 1,000, p rimarily from the foreign community in Tokyo.

Over-regulation With such a vast, untapped potential market of users, why have primary and secondary service providers been so slow to get underway? Some industry analysts lay a major part of the blame on sensationalist press coverage of the commercial Internet's early d ays in Japan. (See "The Internet Wars" on page 63.) Others claim a lack of commitment by service providers, or a "go slow" approach that is the legacy of the Internet Wars era. Still others lay it to the tight control being maintained by academics, the pi oneers of the Internet in Japan. One thing about which everyone complains, though, is bureaucratic over-regulation.

"The communication structure in Japan is highly regulated," observes Boisvert. "Explain to me why there are only two FM radio stations in Tokyo. Is it because people don't listen to FM radio? I don't think so. It has something to do with government regul ations-which are beginning to loosen up some."

Caldwell agrees, noting that "Japan is always the last to make the move to anything that in the least represents a loss of control. This is very much a controlled society--information is controlled. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) have done a wonderfully inept job of keeping this country down economically, by regulating to the point of ridiculousness: cellular phones, cable television, satellite TV, radio..." David Conrad, assistant manager of Internet Initiative Japan's Research and T echnical Planning Division, echoes the general concern about the MPT and the bureaucratic restrictions imposed on Internet providers. "They treat us more like telephone companies, with some very strange regulations from an American perspective."

Tim Burress, president of TWICS Co., Ltd., agrees that there have been roadblocks. "The work of setting up Internet service in Japan is technically straightforward," he says, "but every time somebody has made a move, some government body or other has got ten in the way. Frankly, I think all of the companies starting up to provide this service have underestimated the difficulties involved in dealing with government red tape."

John Savageau, regional services manager of· Sprint Japan Inc., concurs with this general assessment, but he notes that the Japanese government is simply trying to protect the country's interests. "They want to have their country.., be in a position of c ontrol in whatever regulation is imposed--to communications or any other type of commercial trade going in and out of the country."

Things may be starting to change, though, with regulations being loosened and stretched. According to Caldwell, "the Berlin Wall of Japanese regulation [will) tumble down in the next few years. What this probably means is that Japanese bureaucrats are re alizing they have a lot of catching up to do to come up to the world's standards, and that for Japan to join the global communications community, that wall will have to come down. With the economy still staggering, Japan could continue its economic downsl ide unless communications restrictions are relaxed. Mitsuru Chono of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications' computer division acknowledges that the MPT is very interested in the Internet. "The position of the Internet within the range of telecommunications services is not vet clear,"he says,"but we are exploring what types of new services can be provided."

He predicts that "use of the Internet will rapidly expand," and he sees the Internet being eventually positioned as "a second telephone network." At the end of March, the MPT set up its own intraministry LAN that is connected to the Internet. This unchara cteristic step is evidence that, as Ghono says, "a different world is emerging."

A split personality

To better understand the uproar over "business use" of the Internet, it is necessary to know something of the history of internetworking. The Internet has its roots in the research community. (See "A Brief History of the Internet.") Although it isn't visi ble to the typical user, the Internet actually has two halves. The original part was for academic and research use, but as the Internet grew its value soon became apparent to those who had business to transact. The academic and research community in contr ol of the Internet didn't want commercial use of the system, but they couldn't effectively prevent it. What would often happen was that a company research group would get access, then other parts of company would gradually crowd in as well.

It soon became apparent to Internet administrators that it was impossible to keep business users off. So about two years ago in the US, it was finally decided to allow companies to use the Internet for business purposes--since they were doing it anyway, it was easier to allow and thus partially control it rather than attempt the impossible task of eradicating it. It was decided to let commercial use coexist on a separate, but linked, internetwork. Commercial use is now expanding rapidly, and it currently accounts for over half of the electronic mail (e-mail) traffic in the US, and onethird of e-mail globally.

Commercial Internet access in Japan is even newer--only six months old, and it has gotten off to a rocky start. Besides the restrictions imposed by government, the academic and research communities are still very much in charge and are taking a "grow slo w" approach. JPNIC (which effectively controls registration of Japanese Internet "addresses") has not been set up to make growth of the Internet fast or easy in Japan. "They're designing it for slow growth," says Boisvert. "I'm not sure it's intentional; it may be just poor business judgment by some young academics. But the result is extremely high cost right now--way beyond what they need to charge." Those costs are in addition to the extremely high leased line costs.

Japanese academics have the reputation of living in ivory towers, and they can be uncooperative or even hostile when the word "business" is mentioned. While many commercial users see the academics' control as a wall to be breached, Savageau finds some ju stification for the research community's protective attitude. "The academic and research guys may see this as a threat by outsiders to freely access the resources that they have spent so much time building. Which is a legitimate concern... They want to pr otect their intellectual property, and they want to maintain control over this network that they built."

TWICS: the first on-ramp

TWICS (originally an acronym for TwoWay Interactive Communication System) might be thought of as having a foot in both the academic and commercial doors. TWICSs parent company is the International Education Center, so it has academic roots, and for many y ears TWICS got its e-mail feed from Tokyo University (Todai). But TWICS is also a for-profit company in the forefront of providing commercial Internet access in Japan, which is why TWICS abruptly found its Todai connection cut off back in November. The ad ministrators at Todai "suddenly discovered that we were commercial, offering access to individuals and businesses--suddenly, after six years," says Burress. "I think what it was, really, was that we became publicized." Others were, like TWICS, quietly usi ng the Todai email connection for commercial purposes because there were no alternatives, and the university tacitly allowed this to occur. But everyone in Japan knows the proverb about what happens to the nail that sticks out....

Why was TWICS the first in Japan to get a commercial Internet hookup? According to Craig Oda, Marketing and Customer Support liaison, "One of the reasons we were first is that the people here wanted to use the Internet and were looking for ways to get it . Other companies look at it as a business opportunity, so they'll wait to see if it's profitable or not." TWICS president Burress agrees, saying, "The difference is that wetre doing this because we want to use the Internet ourselves. It wasn't an investm ent or to make money for shareholders. We just wanted to use the tools, and this was a way we could afford to do it."

Opportunity didn't just come knocking on the TWICS door. TWICS staff have been lobbying and promoting themselves in the Internet community worldwide for at least three years. "We've been attending all the Internet Society meetings, prodding people and tr ying to convince them that Japan was an interesting place to come," says Burress. "So it was connections like that, the fact that we were out there pushing." In fact, it was Jeff Shapard, former system operator of TWICS, whom many credit with convincing I nterCon Systems to enter the Japanese market.

There were frequent delays and setbacks but TWICS' full Internet connection became a reality in mid-October 1993. TWICS was the first customer of IIKK, the firstInternetproviderinJapan.InJanuary, IIKK was taken over by Performance Systems, Inc. (PSI). As ked how the takeover by PSI has affected TWICS, Burress says "For one thing, it solved some of our technical problems. TIKK was relying basically on one technical guy based in the States and coming over on an infrequent basis; that wasn't enough to keep t hings going smoothly, especially at first. PSI came in and straightened stuff out."

TWICS has had its share of problems-some that might be blamed on IIKK, but others of its own doing: cutoff of its e-mail feed, problems getting properly registered with JPNIC, clogged phone lines because of the increase in membership and heavy Internet u se, inadequate hardware and software to handle the increase in use, "bounced" (not delivered) mail, a users manual that has been promised "real soon now" for months,... the list could go on. "Because we were first on the Internet," says Oda, "we ran into a lot of problems. But it's quite a prize to be first, so it was worth it."

Recently, aside from busy signals on all of its 15 phone lines and occasional sluggish response from the overloaded VAX computer, TWICS service has been reliable. Since its initial Internet hookup, with telnet, ftp, archie, and usenews capabilities, TWIC S has added several new features, such as gopher, lynx, new e-mail software, and mailing list support. (If you're an experienced cybernaut, you'll know what these terms mean. If not, you'll find the wonders of these arcane features explained in any book a bout the Internet; there isn't space here to even begin to explore their capabilities.)

What's in store for the future? Burress would say only that "The system in six months will look significantly different." Pressed for details, he says that, "At a minimum, we'll have a mailreader, a newsreader, and Internet access through PPP" Oda sugges ts that, "In six months, users will be able to run software for a mailreader on their own computer; it won't put such a load on the TWICS computer. We're also thinking about giving people access to the raw command shell, so people who want to do programmi ng can work on utilities of their own. We hope they will contribute and allow other people to use those utilities."

Some users, though, do not foresee a bright future for TWICS. "TWICS just ain't gonna survive," laments one disgruntled user. "Right now it has the advantage of being the only fully linked public dial-up access in Japan. People suffer with it for that re ason, but basically, the TWICS interface sucks. As soon as other sites come on-line with functionally the same services, TWICS is going to get shut out."

Even some of its supporters are pessimistic. "I think TWICS is doing a heck of a good job," says one. "It's providing fairly good access to the rest of the world -- that's not good enough, though.

For those of us used to RIP graphics and off-line mailreaders, using TWICS is a tedious transition. If TWICS expands its capacity through a larger processor, and lots more dial-in lines, the); will have a good chance of success. Ii they try to maintain th e status quo, with their VAX and limited access, I think their future is maybe a year."

The present and near future

It seems that TWICS may have stiff competition soon--the hookups of several other systems to the Internet have been announced or rumored for May and June. The brief information presented here will be out of date by the time you read this, but it will at l east give an idea of the players in the Japanese commercial Internet market. (And we'll keep you updated on changes in future issues of Cometlting Japan, starting with an article on English/bilingual BBS's in Japan in the July issue.)

There are three primary Internet service providers in Japan. AT&T Jens has been the most successful so far, and reportedly has about 50 corporate customers, none of whom are providing access for individuals. IIJ initially had trouble getting government a pproval (as detailed in the February issue of Wired magazine), but it is now scheduled to be up and running by May 1. In addition to leased line services, IIJ will offer individuals full dial-up IP access. The cost, however (30,000 initial fee, 2,000 per month plus 30 per minute), will make IIJ's service more expensive than TWICS tor anyone who is on-line more than 4 minutes per day

TKK is now out of the picture, having been taken over by PS1, which seems to be taking a "go-careful" strategy, intent on firming up its technical capabilities before taking on new customers. PSI's approach might even be termed a "go backward" strategy. There are rumors that PSI reneged on promises (and at least one signed contract) made by IIKK, and even a suggestion that PSI would be happier if it had no customers in Japan so that it could start from scratch when it is finally ready. When contacted in Tokyo, David Smith, general manager of PSI Japan, declined to answer anr questions. A promised call from "our US marketing people" neve r materialized, and e-mailed questions went unanswered. In the absence of any company response, Computing Japan can only offer the rumor that PSI is busy with contracts with cable TV companies in the United States and has shifted its focus from Japan to t he US. One source suggests that PSI will not become active in Japan until August at the earliest.

For the individual, TWICS remains the cheapest commercial Internet access point in Japan. Nifty-Serve is said to be in the process of introducing fuller Internet access, though word is that it is now experiencing some of the same problems that TWICS went through earlier. As one user puts it, "Nifty-Serve is an overpriced service, but it's the best one out there for Japanese." ASCIINET and PC-Van will reportedly be connected to the Internet (at least for e-mail) in June, and IBM's new People network is scheduled to loin the Internet in August. There are also BBS's that now (or will soon) offer e-mail Internet connections and a limited number of newsgroups-the Tokyo PC BBS, IAC On-line, Aegis, and Janis, to name a few.

What does the longer-term future hold? Internet connectivity is one area in which Japan could possibly leapfrog the older technologies and introduce high-tech service from the start. One technology that seems poised for practical application is called FI FTH (Fast IF to The Home). FIFTH utilizes ISDN lines to provide home users with the same Internet environment available at universities. With the advanced state of its ISDN coverage (reportedly available to 97% of the population), Japan is in good positio n to apply FIFTH quickly and successfully.

For a definitive view of the future of the Internet, both in Japan and worldwide, the place to be is Makuhari Messe on July 27-29. All of the maior players on the Internet stage will be at Networld+ Interop '94 Tokyo, which promises to be possibly the ma jor computer-related exhibition of the year. As Savageau suggested, when I asked him what the rest of the year holds for the Internet: "The next six months? Show up at Interop in July and you'll see."

Tel: 03-3486-9661

AT&T Jens
Tel: 81-3-5561-3411
Fax: 81-3-3584-0810

IAC On-line
Tel: 03-5561-0416
Fax: 03-5561-0417

Internet Initiative Japan Tel:

Tel: 03-5471-5806

phone: 03-3454-6909

Tokyo PC BBS
Mdm: 03-3487-9819

Tel: 81-3-3351-5977
Fax: 81-3-3353-6096
Mdm: 03-3351-8244