How is it possible for a person in Mexico City to communicate in a matter of seconds with a person in London? The internet connection allows us to communicate through a variety of channels. Text messages, calls or video calls, are media that connect us in seconds. People who years ago took months to communicate by post did not imagine that some day communication would be so easy. Easy? Is the Internet really simple?
Some of the greatest mysteries of mankind are about common things. How many things do we use daily without asking ourselves how we define it, how it works or what mechanisms make it possible? For example, how are there cities in the middle of the desert that have drinking water in their homes? Where does it come from? The same goes for the internet connection. It really is a tool that has become crucial in our lives, yet most of us use it regardless of what it is.
We all use the internet, but how do we define it? Really, what are we using when we use the internet? When you send a text message and receive a response in seconds, what made it possible? Using the internet every day doesn’t mean we really understand what we’re using.
The fact is that the internet is mysterious. It seems to be, at the same time that contained in our cell phones or computers, it is a space apart from the physical world. Despite this perception of the internet as an intangible space, it is also capable of containing much of our lives. On the internet are the photographs, thoughts, music, preferences, opinions, personal data... of millions of people. It is easier and easier to imagine that we will migrate all our life to this intangible space, Meta is part of this ambition.
But what is the internet itself? Well, to whom we owe much of the creation of the internet is Tim Berner Lee. He is the communications engineer responsible for HTML, HTTP codes, URLs and servers. It was in 1989 that the idea of creating a global computer network materialized, a free and open space for all people to share ideas and knowledge. Berner himself explains the Internet on the World Wide Web Foundation website. That is, the internet is a global network through which we share information.
What is the net made of? When we think about the Internet, we may be thinking about wireless connections, if we combine that with the idea of a network, the image of an invisible network of connections between devices that communicate could come to our mind. However, this would be a misconception of the internet connection. The idea of a physical cable network is much more accurate.
Although WiFi or the use of mobile data is increasingly common, we have not been able to set aside cables, antennas and satellites to make this internet connection possible. Behind a text message that is received and answered in just a few seconds are involved a lot of infrastructure. Which brings us to the main point: how does all this infrastructure make internet connection possible?
Although it seems that when we use WiFi messages or information miraculously comes through the air, there is nothing further to this. Wireless internet connections require a lot of physical infrastructure. It is a little-known reality that our connections, whether telephone, telegraph or internet, have never been virtual, they have always used physical devices that keep us connected.
To explain how the internet works, we must first know the parts that make it up and establish where we usually move. Here are the parts of the internet:
1. The first and last mile
2. Internet centres
3. The backbone of the internet
What happens in each of these parts?
• The first and last mile: this is where the users are. All actions that involve establishing an internet connection to receive information. That is, text messages, apps, notifications... etc.
• Internet centers: what is this? Well, it’s literally a building full of cables and servers that connect between different networks. These centers make it possible for a person using an internet company or telephone service other than yours to communicate with you.
• The backbone of the internet connection: the name says it all, this is where the internet really is. These are the underwater physical cables that connect millions of internet users not only in one community or country, but around the world.
So, we know the parts and what they consist of, but the question remains unresolved, how does the internet work? Let’s look at it with a practical example: how does a photo get from one cell phone to another?
We will call phone 1 to the person sending the photo and phone 2 to the person receiving. The phone 1 takes the photo and to be able to share it by chat you will split it into many small pieces that are easier to handle. Let’s imagine that you must put those pieces in different envelopes with some data that will indicate where you are going, among many other information that will give order to the final image and ensure that it reaches its destination. This information will become a series of ones and zeros, as computers are handled in binary language. Each and every zero is a bit, eight of them make up a byte. A photo of 1.1 megabytes is composed of 8,800,000 bits.
Once the information happens to be this series of ones and zeros it is that they can be transferred to the router. How does this happen? By means of radio frequencies emitted by the telephone 1. A frequency is used especially for the ones and another for the zeros that the router picks up. Once on the router you must transform those radio frequencies into something that can pass through your wires. These are usually high-speed electrical pulsations.
Where do these pulses go? From the router it goes to a cable that is owned by your internet connection company. This cable connects with internet centers. That’s where you’ll find the fastest route to the phone 2. It’s in these centers that different providers and networks connect. In these centers the message will look for how to get to the router to which the phone 2 is connected so that the router emits the encrypted radio frequency with the image and is finally received.
The process is the same if you are connected via a cellular wireless internet connection. Instead of the router, what we are connected to is antennas every few miles that are responsible for emitting and receiving radio frequencies to ensure our internet connection. I mean, if I’m using my phone company’s wireless connection from the street and sending a message to someone who’s connected to WiFi, instead of my phone information (which would be 1) going through the router, would go through an antenna and get to phone 2 through your router, and vice versa if it were otherwise.
But what happens when we’re trying to send a message to someone on the other side of the world? In that case, our message should take roads of submarine cables. Our internet connection globally depends on millions of miles of cables connecting countries and continents as do those in internet centers.
There are currently more than 400 cables covering more than 1.3 km of cables which are the infrastructure for the internet connection. These cables are fiber optic and are coated with several layers to protect them. However, they are not infallible.
The wires connecting the world go under the sea. Often they are only on the underwater ground, in some cases they are buried underneath, but those cases are the minority. There are many factors that can damage them and leave millions of people without an internet connection.
As incredible as it may seem, sometimes these wires are bitten by sharks. However, they are not to blame for the instability of your internet. Human activity such as fishing, transporting vessels, drilling in the ocean, are activities that affect much more the stability of these cables. Sometimes anchors damage or move them, or fishing nets get stuck in them. Another major factor affecting these cables is geological movements. Tectonic plate movement, earthquakes, or volcanic explosions can move or damage wires.
If this happens relatively often, why don’t we run out of internet? Many times what you do is connect to other cables, messages find other routes to get information. However, it can happen that in remote areas that depend on a single connection, when affected, they are left without an internet connection. This was just what happened in Tonga. In January 2019, the cable that gives them an internet connection moved away leaving them incommunicado. In January 2022, that same cable was affected by the explosion of an underwater volcano, restoration work has taken weeks. Due to the lack of internet connection there were problems to provide help to all those affected by the explosion in the area.
For how dependent we are on the internet it is important to remember that it is not an all-powerful entity in heaven. Internet connection is a complicated system, it is tangible and requires the work of many people to achieve it.
Internet connection is a primary necessity today. Yet few of us really understand how it works. At the end of the day, the internet requires cables, antennas, servers and radio frequencies that communicate with each other encoding and decoding messages up to our cell phones. Knowing the basics about the necessary infrastructure helps us to know how this human creation comes to us and to appreciate it for the wonder it is without neglecting its vulnerabilities and limitations.
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