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

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

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

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