With so much accessible at the tip of our fingers, it’s easy to take the internet for granted. But what actually is the internet, and where does it come from?
Better yet, what is the main source of the internet today?
While there are some companies that provide internet to large populations of North America, there is no main source of the internet as far as the actual technology goes.
The “internet” simply refers to a vast network of servers and data centers that are connected to each other all over the world.
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The internet works via a worldwide system of computerized networks that are interconnected via a set of core communication protocols.
These protocols culminate in a web server that is accessible via application software programs through the World Wide Web (WWW), the dominating software that exists all over the world.
These programs give internet users the ability to retrieve information from the system as a whole.
In a nutshell, the internet is simply a global system of computer networks that all “talk” with each other.
Due to the sheer numbers and fluctuations of connected networks and users, it is essentially impossible to place an exact number on the size of the internet at any given time (it also continues to expand almost daily).
However, what is known is that there are over 2.25 billion indexed web pages (website pages that have been discovered and cataloged in search engines).
Likewise, as of January 2022, there were 4,294,967,296 IPv4 addresses (IP addresses using Internet Protocol version 4) and 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 IPv6 addresses (IP addresses using Internet Protocol version 6).
Around 5 billion people, or over 60% of the world’s population, use the internet per month.
Though the internet appears invisible to the naked eye thanks to “wireless” access and cloud storage, it still comes from a lot of physical cable connections.
Your computerized device at home doesn’t access the internet directly—it connects to your internet provider router first.
This router uses a cable connection (usually copper) to connect your home to the internet provider’s fiber network, which is connected to larger cables that connect with the global network as a whole.
So, even if all of your devices are wireless, they are still connected to a physical network around you.
The cables and fibers of this network are typically buried under streets and even oceans, so they aren’t visible in everyday life.
Yet it is because of this multitude of physical connections that our devices can transfer and retrieve data at near-instant speeds.
In order to understand where the internet comes from today, it’s important to go back to its origins.
In 1961, Leonard Kleinrock published a paper called “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets,” which was the first recorded conception of the internet.
Then in 1969, the United States Department of Defense constructed a computer network known as ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), which linked together computers at government agencies, universities, and certain others from around the world.
In the 1970s, inventors Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn came up with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which gave computers the ability to transfer data by communicating the same “language.”
This was a game-changer because multiple private networks had started up as a result of ARPANet, but until TCP these networks could not interconnect.
Numerous other contributions have since been made to improve the speed and capabilities of the internet as a whole, but TCP remains its primary protocol across the world.
The internet consists of a widespread network of physical cables to connect different regions far and wide, and these often travel through international undersea cable lines.
More recent years have also seen the rise of satellite transmissions in support of these cables.
There are several different types of networks, all designating how widespread that network is.
The most important of these designations are as follows:
- Personal Area Networks (PAN) – your local connection between different devices and rooms in a small space (like your house).
- Local Area Networks (LAN) – the connection between more than one computer in a smaller space, like at a private company.
- Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN) – a broadband telecommunication network run by a provider than connects multiple LANs that are in nearby proximity to each other, like companies in the same city.
- Wide Area Networks (WAN) – a number of networks that extend across broad geographic locations, such as an entire country or even a continent.
- Global Area Networks (GAN) – the worldwide internet as a whole.
- Virtual Private Network (VPN) – a network that consists of any of the previously mentioned types above that uses the physical connection infrastructure to connect devices virtually.
The “cloud” simply refers to storage servers that are accessible all over the internet. But when someone stores their data in the cloud, it still goes to a physical location even if not the physical device it started from.
This location is one of the numerous data centers located all over the world.
A data center is a physical space that houses internet equipment for both connection and storage space.
Since cloud storage has become the go-to for most devices, data centers have been increasing in size and quantity in the 21st Century.
The largest data centers in the world are primarily located in the United States:
- The Citadel – Tahoe Reno, Nevada, USA (7.2 million square feet)
- Range International Information Group – Langfang, China (6.3 million square feet)
- Switch SuperNap – Las Vegas, Nevada, USA (3.5 million square feet)
- DFT Data Center – Ashburn, Virginia, USA (1.6 million square feet)
- Utah Data Center – Bluffdale, Utah, USA (1.5 million square feet)
Depending on where people live, they may have a variety of options to connect to the internet: dial-up, 3G/5G, Wi-Fi, Broadband, and ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line).
Everyone connects to the internet via personal or public devices built for such connectivity, the most common of which are personal computers (mainly laptops) and mobile smartphones.
These devices connect to the internet via an internet service provider or ISP, which owns and maintains the connection routers and cable/fiber networks.
Each country has its own internet providers, and the United States is no exception. However, these providers are typically restricted in the regions of the country they can operate (to avoid too much overlap and competition).
The largest for residential users is Comcast, which operates under the brand Xfinity for its primary internet services.
Comcast operates in 40 states and has around 30 million customers. The second-largest internet provider is AT&T wireless, which operates primarily in 22 states but has some presence in others.
Some states, like Alaska, Hawaii, and areas of the Midwest and the Rocky Mountains, also have their smaller, regional internet providers without a national presence.