Most people think of the internet and the web as a kind of shapeless “out there” thing, but the internet is very much a physical system. It is the largest and most complex machine that humanity has ever built and, once you understand its size and complexity, it looks like a miracle.
No entity “owns” the Internet, but every part of the Internet belongs to someone. Confused? At the end of this article you will no longer be.
The difference between the Internet and the web
First, we need to clarify that the Internet and the web are two different things. The Internet is the real hardware and software that make the global network, well, to work.
The web, on the other hand, is a service that runs over the internet. Most internet is not the web. The web and the websites that make it up are not only the most familiar public face of internet technology, but other services such as FTP, email, video streaming and many more also flow through the same system.
In this article, we use the internet and web architecture a bit to make the explanation easier, so don’t forget about the overview.
A (very) brief history of the Internet
There are many fantastic articles dedicated to the history of the internet. We recommend that you read what appears in Internet society for a perfect combination of detail and length.
For our purposes here, what you need to know is that the Internet began as a government project between the U.S. military and public universities. They developed the first technologies that allowed computers to be networked over long distances.
Most importantly, this “work on the Internet” would be decentralized. Therefore, if large parts of it were removed, the data could still find a way to reach the right destination. It is called an Internet network, because it is a network formed by other networks. One of these networks is wholly owned and operated by you.
The Internet starts at home
True, the first network you find on the Internet is your own local home network. Your router connects all devices that are connected to it using Ethernet or WiFi together.
Even if your internet connection fails, your local network will continue to work. It’s like your own personal internet at home, and in fact you can set up your own streaming servers, websites, and cloud storage without the need for any external network. So this is the part of the internet that you have. Congratulations!
Covering the last mile
Your local network connection to the Internet usually occurs through what is sometimes known as the “last mile” connection. There are a variety of different technologies from the last mile. These can be wired or wireless. Common examples of cabling are DSL (digital subscriber line) connections based on fiber optics or copper.
Wireless Internet connections are made primarily through the cellular network, using 5G, LTE, and other mobile data transmission standards. Rarely could sites be connected via special long-range WiFi connections.
This last mile connection doesn’t connect you directly to the entire Internet, which doesn’t even make sense as a concept. What you are actually connecting to is your internet service provider. Well, in reality you typically connect to several different ISPs, although you do not do business directly with all of them. Don’t worry, it will soon be clear.
Three levels of service provider
Suppose you have fiber internet; you can pay a company for a physical Internet connection, and then pay another company for actual Internet access. Companies with which you do business directly may be “Level 3” Internet service providers. They operate and service the last mile connection at home and use the money their customers pay them to pay ISPs who actually have the largest network infrastructure to transport their data.
They are known as “Level 2” service providers. These providers also do business directly with customers, so your ISP may be a Level 2 company. Their networks are large enough to be able to negotiate peering agreements with other ISPs. level 2.
With these agreements, these networks allow Internet data to flow freely through the system. Because all the Level 2 networks involved benefit from these exchange arrangements, they are usually done with little fuss. However, no Tier 2 network can access the entire Internet on its own, so they need to purchase Internet access on an even larger type of network of service providers.
“Level 1” service providers are at the top of the food chain. These companies have massive networks large enough to reach almost every corner of the Internet and, where they cannot, have exchange agreements with other Tier 1 networks to fill the gaps.
As you can see, the Internet consists of this hierarchy of networks. It’s a bit like a massive tree or an arterial system. Last-mile connections are fed into local exchanges, which are introduced into high-speed Internet backbone networks, which are then connected to massive international trunks. Your internet packs have to navigate this incredibly tricky maze just so you can laugh at a funny cat on the internet. Think about it for a second.
Data centers for everyone
So this huge network of networks we call the Internet ensures that we are all connected, but it doesn’t really have any content for which we want the Internet or the web. Internet content (such as websites, cloud storage, etc.) exists on network nodes. The computer from which you upload images to Instagram is a node as well as the servers that host the websites you like to visit.
While you can easily run your own web server from home, the vast majority of servers (computers that host content and services) are currently within massive data centers. These buildings contain thousands and thousands of special computers that power the Internet and all the services that work. They often connect directly to nexus points in tier 2 or tier 1 networks, ensuring that they can handle the massive amount of data they have to enter and exit each day.
Submarine cables, satellites and other large Internet tubes
Although we have covered the general lines, some more detailed details about the Internet infrastructure should be highlighted. While network connections over a continuous terrain are not so interesting, the Internet covers the world. Where the land masses are separated by massive bodies of water!
Ultra-high-bandwidth submarine cables are the main data logs that cover these gaps, but we’re also starting to see a new generation of satellite systems, such as StarLink, which can form a wireless internet network in the sky. There is even ongoing research on new ways to transmit data over long distances using quantum physics.
The Internet is one of the few things in which almost all nations cooperate, because it is beneficial to all of us. Therefore, while it is true that no one or entity owns the Internet, it is not wrong to say that together we own it as a group and, although just over half of humans have access to it today, in the future next will connect all the last of us.