The internet is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Ask a friend to point at the internet, and at best they will probably pull out their phone or laptop. But those are just bits of plastic and metal with batteries and screens. If they contained the internet, we wouldn’t need data connections.
The internet comes from somewhere, but where? And why can’t we make our own?
How the Internet Began
Like GPS, the internet is a technology born in part out of a desire for military superiority. Shortly after the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite into space, U.S. President Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency. The year was 1958.
Working with academics and a handful of private companies, ARPA created ARPANET, a network connecting computers in several universities across the country in the 1970s. This Department of Defense project established protocols still in use today that enabled networks to connect all over the globe.
In 1973, ARPANET could communicate with the packet radio network (PRNET), which connected computers using radio transmitters and receivers. In 1977, the Satellite Network (SATNET) joined the other two. Later additions included USENET (a precursor to internet forums) and CSNET (for computer science departments at academic institutions that could not connect to ARPANET).
Technicians called the connection between multiple networks inter-networking, or the Internet, for short.
At this point in time, internet access was limited to a rather technical audience. This began to change after Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web in the early 1990s. While we often see the internet and the World Wide Web used interchangeably, the former is actually the interconnection of many different computer networks, while the latter is a way of navigating this giant network.
With the World Wide Web, colleges and businesses began connecting to the internet. Home access followed suit. Fast forward a few decades, and now people are getting online via cars and watches.
But unlike GPS, the internet isn’t exactly free and accessible to everyone. That’s understandable considering how expensive internet infrastructure is to maintain. On the other hand, launching satellites that can communicate with all of our phones isn’t exactly cheap. What gives?
How ISPs Work
The internet today is many times larger than it was back in those days, and college campuses are hardly major factors driving how these things work. Today, schools, businesses, and households all get online using an Internet Service Provider, or ISP.
ISPs build buildings throughout major population centers that house the mechanisms needed to connect local residents to the broader internet. These often windowless buildings are each known as a Point of Presence (POP). Fiber optic lines connect POPs to one another.
In order for the customers on one company’s customers to communicate with another’s, the two must connect their infrastructure to a Network Access Point. All of the large ISPs you know connect to these NAPs in major cities, where unfathomable amounts of bits and bytes zip through cables every second.
Today’s internet primarily consists of the interconnection of these massive corporate networks, with all of the traffic from our computers eventually passing through NAPs.
Can You Make Your Own Internet?
ISPs don’t own the internet. All of the websites that we’ve come to know and love reside on someone’s data servers. ISPs simply own the infrastructure used to connect us to these servers: coax cables, fiber lines, telephone lines, cell towers… you name it.
We can’t replicate and store all the data stored across the web. When we try to create our own internet, what we’re really after is a means of getting online without the need for an ISP.
There are two dimensions to this questions: do we have the technical ability to provide our own internet, and do we have the permission to do so? Let’s tackle these in order.
Constructing Your Own Internet
A connection between all the devices in your home isn’t hard. That functionality comes built into most modern computers, and it’s called a Local Area Network (LAN). This allows you to send files, exchange communications, and play games with other devices connected to the network.
Setting up a similar network for a larger space is also possible. This is called a Wide Area Network (WAN). Private companies often use a combination of LANs and WANs to create an intranet that only employees can access.
With access to untold riches, you could go about laying down your own fiber cables and start expanding your network out to other buildings and communities. If enough people started doing this and inter-connecting their networks, a new internet would be born. But there are reasons this isn’t happening aside from the astronomical cost.
We don’t have to invent a new way of accessing the internet. With enough money, we could build an alternative to the corporate-owned one that already exists. A billionaire (or a group of billionaires) could build a legacy by running fiber all through a state and making access available for free. More realistically, communities could decide they need access to fast internet infrastructure and allocate tax dollars toward laying down cable.
Except here in the U.S., they often don’t have that option. Existing ISPs have lobbied state governments to create laws that prevent startups from providing internet access in an area that is already served. This allows existing providers to have monopolies in many parts of the country. To show how much the game is rigged, these restrictions do not apply to existing companies. A city cannot compete with Verizon FiOS because it would qualify as a startup, but AT&T can come in and start laying down its own fiber if it so chooses.
Companies see this as a way to protect and grow their profits. Laying down fiber is expensive, and they don’t want to do the work of laying down all this infrastructure if people will simply choose to use (likely cheaper) public fiber instead. The telecommunications industry is not shy about using its money to shape government in a way that earns it more money.
What Does the Future Look Like?
People are starting to envision an internet that isn’t as dependent on private companies and is more resilient to national disasters. The solution is a mesh network that relies on end-user devices rather than expensive infrastructure. Each device receives and transmits data needed for the entire network to function.
The Serval Project is one initiative born after a 2010 earthquake cut off most of Haiti from the internet. FireChat lets you send messages over a mesh network, and you can find it in the Play Store and Apple App Store. Hyperboria (formerly Project Meshnet) has bigger ambitions and hopes to replace the entire internet backbone using cjdns. Curious users can download the necessary software on Android, Linux, and macOS.
If these technologies take off, the internet of the future may be very different from the one we use today. The networks would be cheaper and less centralized. We would have more involvement in the infrastructure we all use to get online, and we could see more people making their own internet.
What changes would you make to the way the internet is structured? Do you like the job corporate ISPs have down getting people online? Would you embrace an alternative? Use the internet to share your thoughts with people thousands of miles away via the comment box below.
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