THE NATURE OF THE INTERNET BACKBONE Disclaimer: Much of the information in this set of questions and answers was not thoroughly researched, and no guarantees are made as to its accuracy. A few years ago, when I knew little about the Internet, I asked myself: "Why do I have to pay for an Internet connection? Why can't I just connect directly to the Net? And where would I connect to anyway, if I wanted to do that?" Well, here are some questions and answers about the nature of the Internet backbone. Q. What is the Internet backbone? A. It is a term referring to the largest and most important data connections on the Internet. The backbone is made up of very high-bandwidth connections and high-performance computers which serve solely to route data around on the Net. Q. Who runs the Internet backbone? A. There are several companies which run different parts of it, but the largest is UUnet. Other major backbone providers include Sprint, MCI and Intermedia (formerly known as Digital Express or Digex). Q. Why can't I connect directly to the Internet backbone? A. In theory, you can. However, it would be expensive, as you would first need to pay to have a fiber-optic cable routed to your house. Even after that, you would have to pay an Internet wholesale provider like UUnet for access. Q. If only a few companies collectively own most of the major data pathways on the Internet, doesn't that mean that those companies pretty well own the Internet? A. Yes. Q. Then why do people say that the Internet is anarchistic and not run by any one entity? A. That's a myth. Fact is, without UUnet (and a half-dozen other smaller companies), the Internet wouldn't be nearly what it is. Q. Can anyone make their own Internet backbone company? A. Yes. If you can get the other backbone companies to agree to network with you, then all you need is a few million (or perhaps billion) dollars to make a global network of cables and routers. Q. So if only a few companies can provide Internet access, how do ISPs work? How can ISPs connect to the Internet? A. Believe it or not, ISPs have to go through the backbone providers. Yes, all ISPs have to buy dedicated connections from UUnet or a similar company so the ISP can, in turn, charge you to use that link. Selling huge-bandwidth Internet links intended for the purpose of re-selling to consumers is called "Internet wholesale". American Online (AOL), EarthLink, CompuServe, The Microsoft Network (MSN), and several other major ISPs all get their Internet connections through none other than UUnet. Q. So if backbone providers can provide access to their connections, and if their own connections are "the real thing", why don't consumers just get their Internet access through backbone companies instead of ISPs like AOL? Why not cut out the middleman, wouldn't that be cheaper? A. No. Believe it or not, although UUnet does offer dial-up access for individuals, it's actually more expensive than getting an account through AOL. Why? Good question. Anybody care to explain this? The best answer I've been able to find is that it's because UUnet is not really meant to be a single-user ISP; Its main business is wholesale Internet, and it doesn't have the tech support or local telephone dial-ups that a retail ISP like AOL needs. AOL buys the connection from UUnet at a fixed fee, then makes profit from the fees it charges its users, and the users go to AOL anyway because they get tech support and it's cheaper. But couldn't UUnet be making all that money if they turned themselves into a household ISP? Probably, but they choose not to; UUnet is apparently just not interested in being a retail ISP. One reason for this is that when their only customers are ISPs, UUnet only has a few hundred customers, while if they sold to individual end-users, they would have millions, which they just don't want to do. Telia, one of Europe's largest telecom companies, proudly states on their website: "Unlike many of our competitors, Telia International Carrier is totally focused on wholesale business. We provide services to carriers and service providers, leaving the retail business open to you." They neglect, however, to mention their reasons for this. Obviously it is a business decision. To look at it another way, in the United States, Ford and General Motors are two very large car companies, and most people agree they make great cars. But why don't they make airplanes? Surely if they can make sure good cars, they could make planes too. For that matter, why don't they manufacture toaster ovens or toothbrushes? The answer is simple: It's not their business. They are in a specific business and they stick to it. It may be useful to think of the network in simpler terms. Part of the problem with visualizing the Internet is that it's so big; The network was easy to visualize in the early days when the ARPANET was a network of four computers, one in Los Angeles, one in Santa Barbara, one near San Francisco and one in Utah. Imagine a network with only four computers like this. How would you get "on the network"? You'd have to connect to one of the computers. The "network" is not a magical place where you can go to get online, because the network doesn't really exist; Rather, the "network" is just a grouping of the computers. (As Sun Microsystems' slogan says, "The network is the computer", and "The computer is the network". What's the difference between the network and the computer? There is none, because the two are one and the same.) So how would you get on the network? You connect to a computer. Now imagine that each of these four systems has another system connected to it, so that these four new systems are on the network as well. Although all of the computers in this discussion are "on the network", some of them have to pass through certain computers. Each of the new computers has only one connection to one computer; To reach any of the other computers on the network, communications must pass through the more centrally-connected systems, which are the first four computers. There is nothing wrong with this, since this is what networking is about. However, at this point, how would you get onto the network? You have more choices now; You could connect to one of the first four systems, or one of the four that were added later. Connecting to one of the first four would make your network access a little bit faster because you'd have less computers to go through. But you could also go through one of the other systems; You'd just have to use that system as a middleman. Now imagine that as the network grows, more systems are added upon more systems, until finally there is a huge multi-layered network, with some systems forming a central "core" which existed at the beginning and has the fastest and most direct connection to all the other systems. That network is the Internet, and the central core is called the Internet backbone. And the backbone is run by the companies that came into the business first, and UUnet was the first commercial Internet access company. Once again, there is no such thing as a "direct connection to the Internet" (or any other network), because a connection to the network is actually a connection to another computer. However, it should be apparent that there are different tiers of connections, and a connection to the backbone is more desirable than a connection to a lower-level system which you'd have to pass through. At this point, however, capitalism raises its head and money comes into play; Anybody in the world can get a connection to the Internet backbone if you're willing to pay for the astronomical price that UUnet (or some other backbone company) would charge you for one. However, since most people can't justify spending $50,000 a month to get online, they go with a smaller company like AOL, which takes care of their needs. However, AOL really is nothing more than a middleman, a re-seller of Internet access that sits between the home user and a higher-level system closer to the core of the Internet.