In search of the Internet
Nov. 12, 2012
by Mark Ollig

Andrew Blum regularly uses the Internet the way many of us do.

We sit down at our computer, get comfortable, open our web browser, see our Internet homepage, go where we want to go, and do what we want to do.

I think most of us take the Internet for granted; we do not know exactly how it all works – we just assume there is some magic Internet genie in a box someplace watching over it.

Many folks believe access to the Internet is as important as having a phone and electricity.

We expect the Internet to always being “on” and available to us.

Blum, a young correspondent for Wired magazine in the UK, described his Internet revelation during a recent Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) conference.

Yours truly watched the TED video in which Blum tells the story of how one day, he sat down at his computer, opened his Safari web browser, and saw this message: “You are not connected to the Internet.”

Blum then did what many of us would do.

No, not panic; he called his local Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Blum told the story to the audience about the ISP “cable guy” who came out to the building where he lived to work on the problem.

Blum described how he and the cable guy proceeded to trace out the path of the Internet cable from his computer to the cable modem. From there, the Internet cable led them to a “dusty clump of cables” hidden behind the couch.

One cable from behind the couch traveled through an outside wall, to the front of his building, and then veered down into the basement.

From the basement, the cable changed course. It re-routed back outdoors where it joined up with several other cables attached on the building’s outside wall.

A scurrying noise caught their attention, Blum and the cable guy looked up; they observed a grey squirrel running along the cable.

“There’s your problem, a squirrel is chewing on your Internet,” said the cable guy.

The thought of a common grey squirrel having the wherewithal to bring down the powerful and mighty Internet by chewing on it seemed to completely dumbfound Blum.

“The Internet is a transcendent idea. It is a set of protocols that has changed everything, from shopping to dating, to revolutions . . . it was unequivocally not something a squirrel could chew on,” Blum told the audience, which found this sentence amusing.

A picture of a small black plastic box (about the size of a lunchbox) with an attached red light was shown on the large screen to the audience.

This box was Blum’s Internet cable modem – the magic Internet genie itself.

To him, this had been the physical representation of the Internet.

Having a squirrel literally cutting off Blum’s Internet led him to speculate about where the Internet cable went.

He wanted to know how this cable linked into the physical world and connected with the Internet and all of its parts.

He even wondered if the Internet was an actual place he could go to and visit.

“Could I go there? Who would I meet?” Blum contemplated.

His curiosity about what the Internet is made of led him on a two-year adventure investigating the physical realm of the Internet.

He visited many data center facilities, including one large data network colocation center at 60 Hudson Street in New York.

The 60 Hudson Street building comprises a full city block, and was the former Western Union building.

It is one of about a dozen buildings in the world where telecommunication’s companies interconnect and route telecom and Internet traffic.

More networks of the Internet connect to each other in the 60 Hudson Street building than in any other building in the world.

In Minnesota, the largest data network colocation center is the 511 Building, which is directly east of the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis.

Your telecom-experienced columnist spent a few months in that building while working for a telecommunications provider.

The 511 Building is also known as Minnesota’s premier Telecom Hotel, because many telecommunication companies have facilities here.

It is a major data hub used by ISP’s and telecom companies to connect with the core routers and primary data “backbones” throughout the country. These connections are made over ultra-high bandwidths using fiber-optic cables.

Think of this data hub like that of the human backbone which distributes signals to the smaller nerves throughout the body.

The 511 Building has over 300,000 square feet to support its multi-tenant telecommunication switching facilities, fiber-optic network system providers, and optical-cabled backbone interconnections.

The 511 Building has backup data network connectivity, and a technically advanced climate-controlled environment.

This data networking center has emergency air-conditioning units, dual electrical utility feeds, and multiple backup power generators.

I was impressed seeing all of the technology, equipment, and people which support telecommunications and the Internet working inside this building.

Here’s a link with some photos of the Minnesota 511 Building; including one with the Metrodome: http://www.511building.com/photos.html.

Check back next week, as we follow Andrew Blum’s adventurous search for the Internet.

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