Exploring the ‘physical’ side of the Internet
Sept. 26, 2016
by Mark Ollig

It all started when a spirited squirrel chewed through the cable providing Andrew Blum’s home internet service.

This incident inspired Blum to begin a personal investigation.

He wanted to learn where the other end of the Internet cable went.

“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 physical place you could look at.

Blum embarked on a two-year journey; visiting the places and people responsible for the installation and maintenance of the physical Internet.

Located in New York, the former Western Union Building; now the major telecommunications and Internet center for the northeast region of the US, is the 60 Hudson Street building.

There, he saw the physical path taken of an Internet router device used by one of the major social media networks.

A yellow fiber-optic cable from the router traveled up into the ceiling racking, came back down, and then connected into the router of a different network.

“That’s unequivocally physical,” Blum reasoned.

The 60 Hudson Street building is also home to major communication networks serving fiber-optic cables traversing under the world’s oceans.

These fiber-optic cables connect America with Europe, and other parts of the world.

An undersea fiber-optic cable usually terminates inside a building called a landing station (hub).

For security reasons, hubs are inconspicuously located along seaside neighborhoods.

Fiber-optic cable hubs are located along coastlines all around the world.

Blum corresponded with someone working for a fiber-optic communications company.

This person gave Blum a specific date and location where he could go and watch a fiber-optic cable being brought onto shore from a specially equipped, cable landing ship.

Blum journeyed to a sandy beach south of Lisbon, Portugal, and saw the cable landing ship positioned in the water about 1,000 feet from the shoreline.

He then noticed a person in a diving suit walking out of the water onto the beach.

This person was holding and pulling on a green nylon rope, and its attached fiber-optic cable.

The nylon rope was the fiber-optic cable’s “messenger line.”

The messenger line was used to bring the fiber-optic cable onto shore from the cable landing ship containing large spools of fiber-optic cable.

Blum then noticed a bulldozer driving onto the beach.

The messenger line was attached to the bulldozer, which pulled the fiber-optic cable further upshore.

Many feet of fiber-optic cable were pulled onto the beach.

Off-shore, the other end of the fiber-optic cable being spooled off the landing ship floated atop the water, attached to buoys.

The person in a diving suit went back out into the water and used a knife to cut off the buoys, causing the fiber-optic cable to sink and rest on the ocean floor.

On the beach, workers using a hacksaw, cut open the end of the fiber-optic cable.

The exposed individual fiber-optic strands were then prepared to be spliced with another fiber-optic cable brought 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,” observed Blum.

After the fiber-optic strands on both cables are spliced together and successfully tested, the cable will be buried inside a protective conduit under the sandy beach.

When the new fiber-optic cable is activated on both ends, the landing station will be able to provide Internet service to the local residents of the area.

Andrew Blum wrote a book about his two-year adventure, and was kind enough to personally answer some of my questions.

B&B: Andrew, you said some people visually see the Internet as a cloud-like image. 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 fiber optic 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: 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 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.

“Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet,” by Andrew Blum, is available from Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Update: Andrew Blum’s new book, “The Weather Machine,” is due out in 2017.

(This column was originally published Nov. 19, 2012, and was recently updated and modified by the column writer)

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