FAQ: What Is the Internet?

What Is the Internet, or, How Do I Find a Good ISP?

This article has several purposes:

  • General explanation of the internet so that you can understand what it is
  • Brief history of the net
  • How to find the best ISP

An Explanation of the Internet

The Internet is made up of networks that are linked with each other. Most universities, large companies, and the various departments of national and state governments have networks. Over 3,500 major networks are linked together as the Internet. Many of these networks are local (cities) or regional (such as states). There are also ISPs (Internet Service Provider, such as Netcom or AOL), which are commercial networks to which anyone may subscribe for service. ISPs may be in office towers with dozens of computer engineers and millions of dollars of equipment. An ISP may also be as small as a kid with a Windows 95 computer in the closet.

For example, Ford Motor Company links their network sites all over the USA with a high-capacity line called a backbone. Backbones are measured by their transfer capacity in Mbps (million bits per second.) A T-1 backbone line can carry 1.5 Mbps (1.5 million bits per second.) A T-3 backbone carries 45 Mbps. Despite what people say about thick pipes, these are thin cables, about the thickness of your phone line. There are also backbones based on fiber optical cable (OC). An OC-3 carries 155 Mbps and OC-12 carries 622 Mbps. Backbones don’t need to have wires. Some backbones are based on satellite links. Satellites are cheap because they can project to an entire continent (for example, India or South America.) In September 1997, there are 31 backbones in the USA, run by MCI, Sprint, ATT, etc. This number is growing fast.

To illustrate the backbone speeds, a home computer usually has a 33.6 kbps modem that can transmit 33,600 bits per second. A T-1 line is about 45 times faster; a T-3 is line about 1,300 times faster. To illustrate this: a 16 MB file (roughly an 8,000 page book) takes 90 minutes to transfer on a 33.6 modem, two minutes on a T-1, and four seconds on a T-3. Qwest has an OC-12 optical cable backbone with more capacity than all of the backbones up to 1998. It can transmit the Library of Congress (twenty million books) in several minutes.

These 31 backbones interlink with each other at eleven Network Access Points (NAPs). These NAPS are the hubs of the Internet. The NAP is somewhat like a train switching station where a train arrives at Kansas City and the first ten wagons are routed towards Chicago, the next five are sent to Dallas, and the last 7 are sent to Denver. NAPs route millions of bits per second. Silicon Valley has four NAPs (one of which is named Mae West). Other NAPs are in Philadelphia (one), Chicago (two NAPs), Washington DC (two NAPs), Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles. Many of the backbones often share the same buildings in many cities so the engineers have linked their backbones with each other slightly unofficially (they knock a hole in the wall, run a cable through it, and cross-link their systems.) Thus there are hundreds of unofficial NAPs.

Backbones have access points in large cities. The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are smaller network services that link to those 31 backbones. They tap into the flow of information from the backbones and distribute to yet smaller customers, such as business and home subscribers. ATT WorldNet, when it started in 1996, was merely access to BBN Planet’s network which in turn ran on MCI’s backbone. The users paid ATT for the right to use BBN Planet. Microsoft Network (MSN), Earthlink, etc., are ISPs with local banks of modems, leased T-3s and T-1s. Some ISPs are regional, others are nationwide.

So what’s the difference between America Online (AOL) and Larry’s ISP? Technically, not much. Both offer a connection to the Internet. Once you’ve passed through their access point, you have equal access to any other computer on the net. You can create your own nationwide ISP without owning a single modem or computer: you just lease access to other ISPs and then sell that access. In fact, most ISPs are really just brand marketing companies. Another company does the technical work.

To illustrate this: five kids have a local LAN (Local Area Network) by linking their home computers together with cables. One of the kids has an Internet account with a local ISP, so they can send e-mail to the rest of the Internet. That local ISP is actually two guys who have a Windows PC in a closet, a leased line, and a hundred subscribers. That local ISP connects to a city-wide ISP which connects to a regional ISP which connects to the backbone. The backbone carries the e-mail across the country and delivers it to a NAP, where it is routed onto another backbone, where it goes to a regional ISP, who delivers it to a local ISP, which delivers it to another kid’s computer across the street.

So you’re wondering: what exactly is the Internet? Internet means Inter-connected Net-works. There is no single thing called The Internet. It’s made up of eleven hubs (NAPs), thirty-one backbones, seventeen thousand ISPs, 200,000 networks, 30 million domain names, and some 300 million users. It’s doubling every six months.

  • The Internet is different from any other kinds of business. The more there is, the more valuable it becomes. The more it’s sold, the more there is, and yet more can be sold. Anyone who buys it can then sell yet more. The more middlemen in the game, the cheaper it becomes to the end user. Whereas most companies are extremely happy to see 10% yearly growth, it’s normal for Internet companies to grow at 100% per year. Some grow at 5,000% per year.
  • Who owns the Internet? Nobody. Different companies own the different networks. But the interconnection is not owned by anyone. Companies and governments choose to connect themselves to the net or not.
  • What is the web? The web is just one of the transfer protocols (called HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol) on the Internet. The Internet also has other protocols such as SMTP (for email), ftp, telnet, and more.
  • What is an IP Number and DNS? Each device (a computer, a printer, etc.) that is connected to the Internet has a unique identification number, which is like a telephone number, which is called the IP number (Internet Protocol Number). For example, my web site is In addition to this, there are also Domain Names. In the same way that telephone numbers can be 1-800-FLOWERS, the IP number can have a name associated to it, such as andreas.com. It’s easier for people to remember the name.
    This means that there has to be a database of IP numbers and Domain Names. An organization called the Internic is the registry of domain names. They maintain the DNS (Domain Name Server).
    There are static and dynamic IP addresses. A static IP address doesn’t change. My machine’s IP number is and it’s always there, so it’s a static address. When you start up your computer and connect to the web, your ISP or university has a pool of IP numbers. It assigns the next available number to you temporarily. During your connection, your machine has that IP address, so during your session, your machine is part of the Internet. When you disconnect, that number is released and it goes back into the pool for the next user. Therefore you have a dynamic IP address.
    To illustrate: When you want to see a picture of my cat, you click www.andreas.com/eurydice and your browser sends an email to the DNS which looks up andreas.com. The DNS sees that andreas.com is a machine with the IP address Your email is sent on to my machine where a program called a daemon looks up the image file. My daemon looks at your email request, finds the picture of my cat, and then it checks your email again for your machine’s dynamic IP address. It sends the image off into the net, addressed to your dynamic IP address. Your browser receives the image and renders it onto your screen. Eurydice shows up on your screen.
  • Who controls the Internet? Nobody. The only agreement is that everyone shall use a set of standards for data compatibility called Internet Protocol (IP). Anyone can put anything on their server: data, pictures, or programs, and it’s up to others whether they use it or not.
  • Can one censor the Internet? Via the Internet, you can reach any computer anywhere. It is just as easy to connect to a computer in Singapore or next door. A local government can forbid something, but the local users can place their web sites on computers in other countries where it is permitted and other local users can visit those web sites. There’s nothing that the local government can do about that.
    By the way, just because a domain name may be catfood.uk, it doesn’t mean that the computer is actually in the UK. Again, that’s just a domain name and the IP number can be anywhere.

A Brief History of the Internet

  • In the 40s and 50s, computers were dedicated devices. IBM tailored the mainframe computers to each corporation. Corporations had no interest or need to exchange information with each other. Ford Motor Company had a computer that could handle automobile manufacturing cost tracking and American Airlines had a computer (SABER) that could handle airline reservations and billing. (Incidentally, SABER was an adaptation of the NORAD military computer system for tracking Soviet bombers to deliver nuclear weapons, which is similar to tracking airliners to deliver passengers. This happened because one of the IBM engineers who built the NORAD computer system was named Smith. He was sitting in an American Airlines plane next to another guy who was also named Smith and who was also the president of American Airlines. It was a long flight and by the time they got off the airplane, they had invented SABER. So you can see that Ford’s computers were really different from airline computers.) Anyway.
  • In 1969, the US Department of Defense’s nuclear weapons researchers began linking their computers to exchange research data and other information. This first, primitive network was called ARPANET. They developed a data standard called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) so that data could be translated between different types of computers and networks over different types of transmission systems, including telephone lines, radio, laser beam, satellites, and so on.
  • In 1985, the National Science Foundation (NSF) created six supercomputer centers around the US. To give researchers access to these supercomputers, the NSF built the NSFNET network to link university and corporate researchers to these supercomputers. The network used a 56 kbps line: state of the art at the time. Today, a 56 kbps modem costs about $25. The university students began to use NSFNET for e-mail and Usenet newsgroups.
  • In 1987, the NSF created the NSFNET backbone with a 1.544 mbps T-1 line. It linked 170 networks. IBM, MCI, and Merit co-operated to build a 24-hour operations center.
  • In 1988, the IBM, MCI, and Merit team built the first T-3 backbone.
  • In 1990, the IBM, MCI, and Merit team was spun off into Advanced Network and Services (ANS) which installed the first 45 mbps backbone. Within two years, some 3,500 networks were connected through the NSFNET backbone.
  • In 1993, Sprint, MCI and other companies were building backbones. The NSF got out of the backbone business and began building NAPs (Network Access Points) which were the connections between backbones.
  • In April 1995, the NSF backbone was shut down. Backbones are now built and operated by private companies, such as Sprint, MCI, Qwest, Genuity, and so on.

How Do I Get a Great Internet Connection?

So… now you know about backbones, NAPs, ISPs, and so on. Your main question is: How do I get a great Internet connection?

Not all backbones are equal. The backbones use different type of lines, different equipment, different types of customers (corporate, government, home, etc.) The technical staff’s ability is important; if they are good engineers, they can improve the system. Some backbones may have old equipment but few customers and thus they’ll be faster than others with state-of-the-art tools but too many big customers.

A company named Keynote did a month-long test of several million downloads across each backbone. The fastest backbone is Compuserve at 1.5 seconds. IBM takes 17 seconds. Bell Canada takes 27 seconds. Compuserve is the fastest because they have lots of capacity but few users. IBM is slow because their customers are large corporations with massive data traffic. Bell Canada is apparently using carrier pigeons (TCP = Transmission Carrier Pigeons).

  • Your ISP should have a connection to one of the backbones which rates well in the Keynote test: (first is best) Compuserve, GridNet, AGIS, UUNet, SAVVIS, Genuity, ATT WorldNet (in that order). All of these are much better than average.
  • It’s not too important to be close to a NAP. Once your data reaches a backbone, it flows at the speed of light. It takes less than .03 seconds to cross the USA. It then hops across a NAP onto another backbone and continues to its destination.
  • Your ISP should have a high modem-to-user ratio. This means that you’ll get fewer busy signals. Generally, they have 10 modems for 100 users. That’s normal. Ask them for the number of modems and the number of users in your area (it doesn’t matter that they have 100,000 modems nationwide: what matters to you is how many users in your area are using the POP in your area. (The POP is a Point of Presence, or your local access telephone number, which generally means an unoccupied office with racks of modems. POPs are generally near the telephone company’s systems building or the backbone access point.)
  • It’s also good to have an ISP with several backbone connections. Some may connect to three or four different backbones, so that if one goes down, they can continue to transmit on the others.
  • But… having a good backbone, etc. is just part of it. You also want technical support that actually answers their emails. Most ISPs are wildly overloaded and they can barely deal with problems. There is a huge demand for technicians, so anyone who understands any of this won’t be working at a low-level job such as technical support.
  • If you plan to access your e-mail from other cities, hotels, or airports, then you may consider an ISP which offers local access in most cities.
  • You could also make a list of local ISP offers, rank them by service and price, and then see which one is connected to the seven best backbones: Compuserve, GridNet, AGIS, UUNet, SAVVIS, Genuity, ATT WorldNet.
  • Boardwatch‘s bimonthly INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDERS is a 500-page catalog with technical profiles of backbones and 17,000 ISPs. You can find a local ISP with a fast backbone.
    Be careful with the ISP salespeoples. They aren’t technically trained and they don’t understand much of this. So… you’ll hear a lot of bad or wrong information.

In closing, here’s a secret tip. If you find that your POP access number is often busy, you can try their unlisted POP telephone numbers. The ISP has extra numbers that they use for testing, favorite customers, girlfriends, buddies of the systems engineers, etc. If your POP’s number is, for example, 937-2000, then try 937-2001, 937-2002, and so on. Generally, they reserve an entire series, so you may start at 937-2099 and work downwards. No, they don’t quite tell you this. Don’t spread it around too much.