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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
The net takes to the air
A flock of pigeons
Your data could be in there somewhere
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

We have had e-mail, v-mail, m-commerce, the i-way and e-tailers. And now a new variant has been added: p-mail.

The "P" stands for pigeon. A group of Norwegian computer enthusiasts has used the ultimate wireless network - carrier pigeons - to transport packets of data between computers.

However, the data transfer is not exactly fast. In the experiment in which two computers were placed just a few kilometres apart, the birds managed a transfer rate equivalent to about 0.15 bps.

At this speed it might take a couple of hours to send a simple webpage or e-mail.

How it really works

The networking technology that keeps the internet running, and which ensures that data sent across it arrives intact at its intended destination, has developed thanks to an informal community of computer experts and developers.

A data packet on a pigeon leg
A packet of data before it is delivered
Ideas for improving the way the internet works are written up in documents called RFCs (Request for Comments).

The computer standard that keeps packets of data zipping across the net and ensures that they reach their destination intact is known as the "internet protocol" or IP.

In 1990, computer scientist David Waitzman wrote RFC 1149 that defined a standard for transferring packets of net data using carrier pigeons. Although this swaps wings for wires, it transfers the same type of data packets used on the net.

Just a joke

Mr Waitzman wrote the RFC as an April Fools joke, never expecting the standard to be implemented. Now, however, Norway's Bergen Linux User Group (Blug) has proved that it works.

On 28 April, Blug used the Carrier Pigeon Internet Protocol to see if it could transfer data between two computers a few kilometres apart in the suburbs of Bergen. Blug provided the computer expertise and the pigeons were provided by the Vesta Brevdueforening carrier pigeon club.

The pigeons were used to send a basic "ping" command between the two computers. Typically a "ping" is used to find out if a computer that is about to be sent data is online and ready to receive it. To complete a "ping", packets of data have to travel to and from the destination computer.

The word "ping" is a contraction of "packet internet groper" and the name is thought to derive from the word used by submariners to describe the sound of a returned sonar signal.

Pigeons and packets

The packets of data were printed on pieces of paper, rolled up, and attached to the pigeons' legs.

The report of the test said the pigeons bearing packets of data were despatched at 7.5-minute intervals from the site of the first computer. Unfortunately, the first few packet-bearing birds were distracted by a flock of pigeons flying nearby.

"Our pigeons didn't want to go home at once, they wanted to fly with the other pigeons instead. And who can blame them...?" reads the report.

After an hour, the pigeons arrived at their destination where the paper was retrieved and the information on it turned back into digital form using a scanner and optical character recognition software.

The return packet arrived back at the starting point soon after giving the CPIP network a data transfer speed of 0.08 bits per second. Further tests of the CPIP got data rates as high as 0.15 bps. By contrast the fastest modems work at a relatively brisk 56 kilobits per second.

Coffee pots

Blug speculates that better error correction techniques, which this time resulted in pigeons arriving with no packets, could speed up the network so it could transport a webpage or a mail message in a couple of hours.

The avian carrier RFC was updated in 1999 to take account of the performance characteristics of other airborne carriers. Judgements about the quality of service these different carriers could offer were based on how fast and reliably they could transport data.

Top of the list was Concorde quality that "expedited data delivery" and, as an added bonus, earned frequent flyer miles. The paper also considered ostriches because of their "bulk transfer capability" but warned of their slow speed and the need for bridging across domains to improve throughput.

Other joke internet standards include RFC 2324 (Hyper Text Coffee Pot Control Protocol) and RFC 748 (Telnet Randomly-Lose Option).

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See also:

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Police swoop on pigeon fanciers
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