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The Buildings and the Wires: How the Internet’s Physical Foundation Came to Be

“A lot of people assume it’s just sort of magical, like it's air that we breathe, or electricity that just happens to be available to us. But in order for everything to continue to grow and reach its ultimate capability we need systems and technologies and businesses that allow that infrastructure to grow.” — Jay Adelson

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Grace AndrewsSenior Manager, Content Marketing
The Buildings and the Wires: How the Internet’s Physical Foundation Came to Be

You’ve heard all kinds of stories of the founding of the internet and the early days of computers. So many of them focus on the last step of the puzzle, the moment when a person connects to the internet from their home, office, or school. 

We think of the internet as invisible, lines of code traveling through the air all around us. But the radio signals carrying data between your phone and the nearest wireless tower travel only a small segment of the journey that data travels. There’s a lot of physical infrastructure that’s necessary to make it all go.

The internet wasn’t always destined to turn out the way it did. Its growth came in fits and starts. There were many moments when things could have collapsed. The reason it’s been able to thrive is interconnection and the infrastructure that makes interconnection possible.

Let’s look at some of the key moments in the history of interconnection.

Internet History Begins at the Pentagon

The precursor to the internet, ARPANET, came about as a result of research and development by the US Defense Department in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. America started to understand the value of interconnection while trying to defend itself.

Sharon Weinberger, author of The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World, says that a huge reason the internet was able to grow was a man you might never have heard of: JCR Licklider.

When Licklider was appointed to lead one of DARPA’s offices, he said, “Let's step back for a moment and think more fundamentally about how humans interact, how they interact with computers,” Weinberger explains. “He looked ahead and said, the way that we work with computers is going to fundamentally change our society.”

Eventually his proposal became a prototype, and a handful of nodes became the first ARPANET network.

In 1969, a researcher at UCLA sent the very first message over ARPANET to the Stanford Research Institute. It read “lo.” Someone was trying to write “log-in”—but the system failed and managed to deliver only the first two letters.

The internet would last as a government-only platform for a long time.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act

How does the internet turn from a closed, Pentagon-centered system into an open web?

First, it spreads to more universities and becomes an important research tool. Coders start creating new languages and protocols.

Before long, people have internet in their homes, tying up their phone lines. By the 1990s, we were becoming more and more connected. 

In 1996, government regulators stepped in to open up the internet for commercial business.

“Setting up business on the internet really transformed the internet as much as it opened up complete new business models that could support all of the services that we know today,” says John Morris, an attorney and a Brookings researcher.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act was about phone companies, but it also opened up the internet’s potential to the masses.

The law laid the groundwork for things like exchange points that could be run by companies that aren’t “affiliated with the existing telephone companies,” Morris explains. It “really paved the way for the broadband internet, but it also paved the way for an interconnected internet.”

The new regulation enabled the internet’s commercialization, but things were growing too fast. 

“There was a fairly sophisticated group of engineers who said that the internet could never scale, and by the end of 1996 it was just going to collapse under its own weight, because it was just too distributed,” says Jay Adelson, one of the founders of Equinix. 

Internet companies wanted to control their infrastructure, to build systems only for them. But that wasn't what the web was about. Equinix set out to solve this problem by building neutral locations where multiple companies could all connect to each other.

Equinix “is a business that was built ultimately to help the internet scale and reach its potential,” explains Peter Van Camp, who was also there in the company’s early days.

The health of this digital ecosystem—with solid, dependable, interconnected infrastructure—has proven to be vital as more challenges developed over time.

A Podcast About the Internet’s Physical Foundation

Hear the story of how internet infrastructure was built and scaled, as told by those who built it and those who documented its history, on the new podcast titled Traceroute. Over the course of seven episodes, the series tells the fascinating tale of how the infrastructure our society depends on so much came to be and the people who made it all happen.

In the first episode of Traceroute, we look at how the need for interconnection shaped the fundamental building blocks of what would become the internet. From ARPANET to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, what started as a military exercise grew to reflect society’s basic need to feel and stay connected.

With that growth came an unprecedented need for hardware solutions that had never been thought of before. These include the need for a faster, decentralized internet, network access points, and neutral connection points. Without these and other innovations to the internet’s infrastructure, this grand experiment of interconnectivity would quickly come to a screeching halt.

Listen and subscribe to Traceroute:  AppleSpotifyRSS

Published on

28 February 2022


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