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The day a squirrel interrupted the internet

May 22, 2020
by Mark Ollig

Journalist Andrew Blum took for granted his always-available internet connection and wasn’t concerned about how it worked – until the day it stopped.

Like Blum, many folks sit down at their computer, get comfortable, open a web browser, check their social media, and browse websites, without worry.

Some folks might assume there is a “magic genie in a box” someplace watching over the internet and keeping it working. I’ll admit, from an automatic network routine diagnostics perspective, there is some truth to that.

Of course, for many of us, having access to the internet is as essential as having a telephone, electricity, water, and food in the fridge.

But, I digress.

During a Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) video conference, Blum talked about his eye-opening internet experience.

Blum begins by telling of sitting down at his computer, opening his internet web browser, and seeing this message: “You are not connected to the internet.”

Blum then did what many of us would do.

No, he didn’t scream “What?” and panic; instead, he calmly called his local Internet Service Provider (ISP) and reported the problem.

A short time later, the ISP’s truck drove up to the apartment building where Blum lived.

He said, “the cable guy” (technician) knocked on his door.

After checking his computer and its ethernet connection to the cable modem, he and the technician proceeded to trace out the physical path of the coax cable from the modem to the outside world.

The cable traveled through an exterior wall, veered straight down, and reentered the apartment building through the basement.

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

While looking through the cables, a loud scurrying noise was heard; Blum and the technician looked up.

Their faces showed expressions of surprise while observing a grey squirrel running along the internet cable hanging in the air from the building to a telephone pole.

The technician walked closer to the wall. He abruptly stopped and closely stared at one area on Blum’s internet cable.

“There’s your problem. A squirrel is chewing on your internet,” said the technician to Blum.

The thought of a grey squirrel having the means to bring down the powerful and mighty internet by chewing on it seemed to completely surprise Blum.

Blum told the TED audience, “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.” The audience found this sentence amusing and laughed.

Blum displayed a photo of a small black plastic box (about the size of a lunchbox) with an attached red light on the large screen in front of the audience.

This box was Blum’s internet cable modem – the magic internet genie itself, or so he had thought.

To him, this, and the cable that plugged into it, had been the sole physical representation of the internet.

Having a squirrel disconnecting Blum’s internet led him to contemplate where his internet cable actually went.

He wanted to know how this cable connected with the internet and all its parts.

Blum even wondered if the internet was an actual place he could go to and visit.

“Could I go there? Who would I meet?” he pondered.

Blum’s 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 encompassed a full city block. It was the former Western Union building.

It is one of many buildings in the world where telecommunication companies interconnect and route telecom and internet traffic.

More internet networks connect to each other in the 60 Hudson Street building than in any other building.

In Minnesota, the most significant data network colocation center is the 300,000-square-foot 511 Building located east of US Bank Stadium (former location of the Metrodome) in downtown Minneapolis.

The 511 Building is also known as Minnesota’s Premier Telecom Hotel because most of its multi-tenants are telecommunication companies.

Years ago, this columnist spent a few months inside the 511 Building, completing work for a telecommunications provider.

The 511 Building is the central internet data hub used by Minnesota ISPs and telecom companies to connect with the core routers and primary data-backbone paths connecting throughout the country. These ultra-high bandwidth paths use fiber-optic cables.

Blum’s internet cable was repaired. So far, the squirrels have not caused any further outages.

His TED talk, “Discovering the Physical Side of the Internet,” can be watched at https://bit.ly/3g01Z3r.

More information about the 511 Building can be seen at http://www.511building.com.

Stay safe out there.


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