The term infrastructure first appeared, according to sources such as the American Heritage Dictionary and Bartleby's, in the 1927 edition of the former. It was coined to refer to the set of systems, works and networks upon which an industrial economy was reliant - in other words, the underpinnings of modern societies and economies. These were both tangible systems as well as organizational assets. As such, it included roads, railroads and inland waterways for transport; electricity generation and transportation systems (power grids), energy storage and transport such as petroleum and coal extraction, refining and distribution systems (pipelines); and communication systems such as telegraph, telephone, radio and postal service.

The term is constructed of the roots infra (Lat. 'below') and structure - describing the structure beneath or below the industrial society; that which supports, enables and propels it.

This concept is especially useful in military planning, and indeed it re-entered popular Western vocabularies following the Second World War, when the Marshall Plan sought to promote the swift rebuilding of that very portion of (Western) Europe in order to enable the NATO allies to support their military objectives and obligations.

It became widely used in American society during the Vietnam War, in which it was used to refer to the objective of planners seeking to disrupt the functioning of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military and economic organizations. It was specifically used to refer to the intelligence organizations of those opponents as 'enablers' of guerrilla warfare - i.e. the 'supporting systems.'

In recent years (1994-) the term has also come to be used extensively in the IT world to refer to networking systems and technologies, likely due to its use by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf in 1994, in a draft for the "Guidelines for conduct on and use of the Internet" for the Internet Society (ISOC). He stated:

The use of the term "infrastructure" is very deliberate here. Although still modest in scale compared to the global telephone system and far less pervasive that national road systems, the Internet has reached the point where it can be reasonably characterized as an infrastructure upon which vital activities are now dependent. A significant part of the R&D community is very dependent on the daily and reliable operation of the Internet and various business and government enterprises are becoming more so. The general public is only just beginning to discover and explore the potential of this mode of telecommunication.

As is true of many other kinds of infrastructure, users and service providers commingle in complex ways. There are some parallels with the road system. There are privately owned roads and driveways which interlink with public thoroughfares and highways. Vehicles are owned and operated by all sectors. In the Internet, users own computers and local networks and routers (or, at least, the user's institutions own these assets). Service providers own or lease switching equipment and telecommunications facilities. Private and public network operators must cooperate and users often also serve as information suppliers by operating anonymous FTP archives, Web servers, gopher servers, email distribution lists, and so on.

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