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Finding the 'physical' Internet
Nov. 19, 2012
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by Mark Ollig

It all started when a squirrel chewed through a cable and disconnected his Internet service.

This incident led Andrew Blum (a published writer and a correspondent for Wired) to begin a personal quest to learn, firsthand, where the other end of his Internet cable went once it left his building.

He wanted to pull back the curtain, and see for himself where this cable connected to out in the physical world.

For many of us, the physical Internet we see is a cable connecting to a small box with blinking lights on it.

Blum, along with many of us, has seen the famous Opte representation of the Internet; an image resembling a spiraling, Milky Way galaxy.

This image shows an oval-shaped, expansive cloud with seemingly countless, small, colorful, brightly lit dots inside it. Each dot communicates with one another via crisscrossing lines of light.

You can see several Opte Internet images at: http://www.opte.org/maps.

The Internet: a mysterious cloud. “We can never seem to grasp it in its totality,” Blum said to the audience during his TED video presentation.

“What would happen if you yanked the wire from the wall, and you started to follow it? Where would you go?” pondered Blum.

He wondered if the Internet was a place you could visit.

And with that, Blum embarked on a two-year journey; visiting the places and people that make up the physical Internet.

At the 60 Street Hudson building in New York, Blum saw where the router of one network, such as a Facebook, Google, or Comcast, was connected using a yellow fiber-optic cable that traveled up into the ceiling, came back down, and then connected into the router of another network.

“That’s unequivocally physical,” Blum stated.

He found the 60 Street Hudson building interesting because it is also home to about six major communication networks serving fiber-optic cables traversing under the oceans. These fiber-optic cables connect America with Europe, and other parts of the world.

An undersea fiber-optic cable usually originates from inside a building called a landing station, which is inconspicuously located along a seaside neighborhood.

Blum had correspondence with a person who worked for an undersea communications company.

This person told him of a location where he could go and watch a fiber-optic cable being brought onto shore from a specialized cable landing ship.

The location was a beach south of Lisbon, Portugal. Blum was there when at around 9 a.m., he saw a man in a diving suit walking out of the water holding a green nylon rope. This rope was the fiber-optic cable’s messenger line, used to pull the fiber-optic cable onto shore.

About 1,000 feet from shore, the cable landing ship, containing the last leg of the fiber-optic cable, was seen by Blum, just as a bulldozer drove onto the beach.

This bulldozer was used to pull the messenger line; which was attached to the fiber-optic cable aboard the landing ship.

The bulldozer finished pulling the messenger line onto shore, and with it, came many feet of fiber-optic cable.

The fiber-optic cable floated atop the water, as it was attached to buoys, which positioned the cable in the right location.

The man in the diving suit went back out into the water with a knife to cut off the buoys in order to allow the fiber-optic cable to sink and rest on the ocean floor.

Blum displayed a picture to the audience of communication workers using a hacksaw to cut open the end of the fiber-optic cable pulled in from the ocean. It was being prepared for splicing to the fiber-optic cable that had been brought down from the onshore landing station.

“When you see these guys going at this cable with a hacksaw, you stop thinking about the Internet as a cloud; it starts to seem like an incredibly physical thing,” said Blum.

Yours truly was able to chat with Andrew Blum.

Blum has just written a book about his two-year adventure, and was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

B&B: Andrew, you said some people visually see the Internet as the cloud-like image Opte has created. After two years of exploring and writing a book about the physical side of the Internet, how do you see it now?

AB: I now have a pretty clear image of its physical realities, particularly the hubs closest to my home in Brooklyn. When a web page hangs, I often picture my cable company’s router, and curse the traffic on the yellow fiberoptic cable feeding it!

B&B: Many people feel the Internet is connected world-wide via earth-orbiting satellites; however, we know this not to be the case. What did you know about this before you started your investigation?

AB: No, even when I started, I knew it wasn’t connected by satellites. I’d read Neal Stephenson’s awesome piece in Wired from 1998, “Mother Earth Mother Board,” so I had a good starting understanding of the “tubes” under the ocean.

B&B: Vinton Cerf has talked about an “interplanetary Internet.” What are your thoughts about Earth linking its network with other planetary bodies?

AB: I think that fits perfectly with the basic philosophical idea of the Internet: a network of infinite networks!

B&B: What surprised you, or stays in your mind the most during your two-year exploration of the physical side of the Internet?

AB: How small the Internet turned out to be, both physically – the list of its most important buildings is surprisingly short – and culturally – the list of network engineers actively involved with interconnecting networks is also surprisingly short.

B&B: Andrew, is there another technology you would like to someday investigate and write about in the future?

AB: Good question. I’ve been thinking a lot about that now, but I don’t yet have a good answer.

I would like to thank Andrew Blum for taking time to talk with me about his new book, “Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” which can be ordered at: http://www.tubesbook.net.


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