Small Gains in My Ability to Picture Internet Infrastructure

Ben Bush


Other than some mental image of a highly air-conditioned server farm full of droning hard drives, I have a pretty limited ability to actually picture much of the infrastructure of the internet. (e.g. this fine photo of a Swiss server farm courtesy of Flickr’s own Nicholas Nova. Thanks, Nick.)

I guess when I envision phone calls or digital information being sent to other continents I always picture them being sent via sattelite and was surprised to hear that the bulk of transatlantic info is still carried by underwater fiber optic cable — not too different from the transatlantic cable first opened in 1956. Boing Boing writes, “When AT&T opened TAT-1 in 1956, the first trans-Atlantic telephone cable, the initial capacity was 36 calls at a time.” Although, of course, it would have been coaxial cable instead of fiber optic. Prior to that, transatlantic phone calls had been carried by radio.

In early July, the Main One fiber optic cable connecting Europe to Africa went live, a step toward bridging Africa’s ‘digital divide’ by reducing the cost of connectivity and increasing the reliability of the service. 4,350 miles of cable now connect Portugal to Nigeria. Additionally, Google is one of the investors in the recently completed Unity Cable, which connects Chigura, Japan to Los Angeles.

I’ve often imagined a non-electric means to light city streets by digging tunnels to the earth’s core.¬†Fiber optic cables would then be laid to the center of the earth, which is made of iron and nickle at about the same heat as the sun and perhaps glows with the same ferocity, to carry the light non-electrically to the surface. This would create orange-colored street lamps that might shine about the same color as the current notoriously ugly high-pressure sodium ones. Not sure how actually environmental digging millions of holes to the center of the earth would be but it’s always a funny thought to me.

Alternately I used to imagine that a beam of light inside a fiber optic cable with mirrors at either end would just keep bouncing back and forth forever, and wondered whether this would qualify as a perpetual motion machine, considering the object — a photon — moving back and forth forever.

Pondering fiber optics primarily as the means to deliver the internet changes how I think about that little photon and conjures up that hoary old buzzword ‘the echo chamber,’ in which, due to media proliferation, people absorb only the media that reinfornces their own opinion — each internet user just bouncing around inside that piece of cable.

Run freely, tiny photon, you are free!


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