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The term "NSFNET" refers to a program of coordinated, evolving projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation that was initiated in 1985 to support and promote advanced networking among U.S. research and education institutions. Participants in NSFNET projects began with the national supercomputer centers and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and continued over time with a partnership team including Merit Network, Inc., IBM, MCI, Advanced Network & Services, Inc., and the State of Michigan; regional networks; and many institutions in research and education. Projects included the construction of data networks as well as the outreach required to spur adoption of networking technologies by researchers and educators.

NSFNET is also the name given to a nationwide physical network that was constructed to support the collective network-promotion effort. That network was initiated as a 56 kbps backbone in 1985. The network was significantly expanded from 1987 to 1995, when the early version of NSFNET was upgraded to T1 and then T3 speeds and expanded to reach thousands of institutions. Throughout this period, many projects were associated with the NSFNET program, even as the backbone itself became widely known as "the NSFNET."

From its inception as a part of NSF's overall inventory of high speed computing and communications infrastructure development, the NSFNET program was a pioneering force in academic computing infrastructure development and in the enhancement of research efforts through advanced network services. The NSFNET backbone, in its support of the broader set of NSFNET programs, linked scientists and educators on university campuses nationwide to each other and to their counterparts in universities, laboratories, government agencies, and research centers throughout the world.

By design, the NSFNET backbone made high speed networking available to national supercomputer centers and to inter-linked regional networks, which in turn worked to extend network availability to other research and educational organizations. Previously, only specific communities in computer science had limited access to networks such as CSNET, BITNET, and ARPANET, so the introduction of the NSFNET backbone represented a significant development in creating a unified and more comprehensive network infrastructure. By combining high-speed networking and connection between the supercomputing centers and regional networks, NSF created a "network of networks" that served as the focal point of nationwide networking during a critical period of pivotal development and that laid the foundation for today's Internet.

Following are sources with more information about the NSFNET.
  • Merit Network's NSFNET final report (PDF), published in 1995, detailed the development of the NSFNET T1 and T3 backbone networks.

  • The National Science Foundation maintains a Web site detailing its history in supporting networking initiatives.

  • In 2007, the NSF created a special report on the NSFNET program, featuring video interviews with many program participants.