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AppRising delivers insight into new broadband applications, exploring their impact on networks and their implications for public policy.

AppRising is written by Geoff Daily, who covers broadband applications and the business of online video. Based in Washington, DC, Geoff regularly advises applications developers, network operators, community leaders, and public officials on how to maximize adoption and use of the Internet.

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November 28, 2007 11:09 AM

What Is... the Internet?

This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to take technological terms that can seem nebulous and complex, and boil them down into understandable concepts with clear definitions.

So to begin, why not take on the biggest of big pictures: defining what the Internet is.

The Internet has often been defined as a series of interconnected private networks, and to a degree that's true: the Internet is fundamentally a network of networks. The Internet is not one homogenous network but many independent networks cobbled together so that data can go from one place to another, no matter what network the sender or receiver is on.

But we need to expand this in two ways.

First, the Internet is not just a series of interconnected private networks but also public networks as well. In fact, the Internet began as a series of interconnected public networks. And while today it's safe to say that the majority of networks that make up the Internet are private, there are certainly publicly owned networks that are part of the Internet as well.

Secondly, we need to break the definition of "network" into two categories: access and backbone.

The access networks--often referred to as "the last mile"--are those that you think of when you're getting broadband service. The cable, DSL, or fiber pipe that connects to your home. This is the part of the network that has been cited as a bottleneck due to the prevalence of slower copper instead of the faster fiber that makes up the rest of the Internet.

That brings us to the backbone. The backbone is made up of the large fiber pipes that crisscross the nation and the globe carrying Internet traffic in between last mile access networks. At least in the US, there's a lot of capacity available here in the form of dark fiber that was put in the ground during the late 90s but is still not yet fully utilized.

In my opinion, though, the Internet is more than just the networks that deliver traffic; it's also the equipment that attaches at either end through which content is supplied and consumed. Again I split these into two categories: computers and servers.

What computers are is pretty self-explanatory, though I do intend for it to go beyond desktop and laptops to include all forms of computers, including handheld devices and other non-traditional computers. These are the instruments through which users experience the Internet and consume content.

Servers are something often mentioned in broadband conversations but perhaps not often enough defined. Technologically speaking, they're basically computers, only these computers are specially designed to host content and applications and serve hundreds, thousands, and even millions of users.

Basically every time you go to a website you're pulling that content from a server. Most every time you watch a video it's being delivered from a server. Whenever you're using an online application where you didn't have to download and install anything, it's being hosted on a server. And even if you had to download software, you did so from a server (unless of course you were using a P2P network, but that's the subject of a future "What Is...").

So what does that leave us with?

The Internet is a series of interconnected private and public networks. The Internet includes both access and backbone networks, as well as the computers and servers that attach to them.

Because of all this cross-ownership, no one can own the Internet (and because of this some might argue no one can control it either).

It's also important to note that when we talk about the Internet not being prepared to live up to its potential to handle all the wonderful bandwidth intensive applications it makes possible, points of failure can be found at any point along this value chain.

Access networks often have limited capacity, especially those that rely heavily on shared bandwidth where one user's activity can negatively affect another's.

Backbone networks can become clogged through heavy usage, especially during flashpoint events like natural disasters, forcing traffic to slow down or reroute.

Computers can be insufficiently powered or bogged down by things like viruses.

And servers can lack the connectivity and/or the capacity to support the demand for whatever content it might be hosting.

Because of this when something goes wrong, resolving the problem can be difficult as simply identifying where the problem stems from is beyond all but the more advanced Internet users.

But if we can start establishing clearer definitions of what the Internet is and how it works, as I've attempted to do here, perhaps we can begin to grow past the pains caused by this nascence in understanding, learn how to better navigate the limitations of today's Internet, and more fully understand the need to continue investing heavily in all aspects of the Internet's infrastructure.


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