Side Quest: The Internet does not exist.
In a side quest for this series about the promise and perils of Starlink and planetary-scale internet service providers, we look at how the terrestrial Internet really works.
For those of us in the US and other well-connected western countries, the internet has become so ubiquitous that we only notice it when it goes down. Our devices are constantly trying to ensure that we stay connected, searching for Wi-Fi and "phoning home" for updates from the services we use. As internet users, we don't need to understand how connections are made. It just happens.
But how the connection is made does matter. It matters for those who are always connected and for those who have yet to connect. The internet is not one network or a network of networks that all function similarly. It is a network of country-defined internets, each with distinct capabilities and limitations.
The Digital Firmament
Digital networks allow us to transmit ones and zeros from one computer system to another. To do that, a lot of things must take place: physical connections from point A to Point B have to be made, signals have to be generated on that physical medium, and some agreement has to be made as to how the ones and zeros will be sent (what order, how fast, etc.). The physical properties of the connection used and the primary ways that ones and zeros are represented in the network determines the cost, speed, and quality of our internet connections. Each physical medium has its own basic rules for installation and use. Copper cables, fiber optic cables, and radio waves are the dominant ways to connect computer systems and create a network.
The Glass Standard
Fiber Optic cables represent the "gold standard" for networks. Fiber connections are fast, secure, and relatively future-proof since they operate at the speed of light.Fiber optic cables are used on land and sea. Ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of international internet traffic travels via approximately 530 active undersea fiber optic cables. Most of these lines are owned and operated by large telecommunication companies, but several have been installed by platform companies (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.).
Despite being underwater, these deep-sea cables are vulnerable to accidental and intentional damage. The lines are most vulnerable in the shallow areas where they approach land. Despite what you may have heard about the internet's ability to route around damage,that only works when redundant connections and services are available and configured correctly. In 2008, a ship dragged its anchor over a fiber cable, severing it and disconnecting some 10 million Internet users in India, Egypt, and the middle east. Meanwhile, in Canada, on multiple occasions over-industrious beavers have chewed through land-based fiberoptic cables, causing internet outages for thousands of users.
There are several places where these fiber optic lines come together to make landfall, which makes these points particularly vulnerable to malicious acts. Just like undersea pipelines, these cables are also easy to sabotage. There have been several incidences of cables being intentionally severed, and several more where foul play is suspected. Damaging a cable doesn't require precision weapons or advanced submarines. Lowering a high-explosive to the seabed will do the trick.
Right now, several nations are working on beefing up the security of their cable networks. Caitlin Burke, the National Security Correspondent at CBN News, investigated these efforts and reported in 2022 that "France proposed spending more than 3,000,000 Euros for 'ocean floor defense' in its 2023 budget. Italy and the UK are also reportedly working to increase surveillance of their underwater cables. And Taiwan is now taking protective measures to ensure communications to the island aren't knocked out by a natural disaster or conflict with China."
Defining Quality on the Net
Once a network connection is made, the two factors determining the quality of an internet connection are bandwidth and latency.
Bandwidth is the amount of data sent through a connection in a second. Typically when we mention "broadband" internet connection, we refer to a connection that can transmit a lot of data per second.For most applications, such as listening to music, watching a video, or browsing the web, the amount of data coming "down" to the user is large, and the amount going "up" is much smaller. A user clicks on a link to start a Netflix movie, and a large video file comes down. That is why most ISPs prioritize downlink bandwidth.
Bandwidth is super important for internet connectivity, but so is another network metric: latency. Latency is the time between when a packet leaves its source and when it arrives at its destination. Latency can be affected by several factors, including all the networks, switches, and routers that a packet has to traverse to get from point A to point B. A high latency network is a poor network.
Many of our services will mask or compensate for high latency. Netflix seems like it operates in real-time, but Netflix buffers the video data on the users's device to compensate for latency. Gaming, videoconferencing, and voice applications require low-latency networks, and these applications will not work correctly when network latency is high.(For more on Latency and Bandwidth.)
Simple as Plug and Play
There is, of course, a lot that is required to make the internet work. Routers sort and forward information as it moves through the network, and there are protocols for routers to learn about the part of the internet they are connected to and how to best operate. Domain name services map IP addresses to user friendly names like "yahoo.com," making the internet useable for us humans. Firewalls keep out malicious actors, and content filters make sure that students can't watch adult material while at school. So on and so forth.
If you want a great explainer/refresher on the technology of the internet, watch this excellent series of videos from code.org
However, technically speaking connecting to the internet is relatively straightforward. Complexities are involved, but the technology is well-known and works well. But we only need to know a small amount about the workings of the Internet to understand that the Internet is a network based on open standards that anyone can theoretically connect to and use.
Even though the technology has been worked out and is standardized, how we get Internet access and what that access provides is not universal. How the country you live in incentivizes and regulates internet service providers (ISPs) determines the speed and quality of your connection and the degree to which your online activities are restricted or surveilled.
When ocean-crossing cables make landfall, or when cables and wires cross a border on land, an interconnection is made to that nation's networks. This interconnection is the demarcation between where one country's internet ends and another's begins. That boundary may also be where traffic from specific websites or services is denied access into the country. Governments implement restrictions on content and applications by looking at the information in the various layers of the data(IP addresses, etc), as well as the actual content being sent.
Just like making Internet connections, methods for restricting access are well-developed and work reasonably well. China's "Great Firewall" is perhaps the best example of state-sponsored blocking that has worked for decades. Other governments are less technically competent than the Chinese in blocking content they want their citizens to see. However, they can still block a large portion of their population from accessing services and information that the government doesn't like, as many citizens in any given country are not technically adept at bypassing technical controls. Nor are most willing to risk the penalties if caught circumventing the government's controls.
Censoring or blocking services and sites can happen for several reasons. In many cases censoring is done to preserve the cultural norms of that country's society. While US citizens might object to such blocking on free speech grounds, citizens in other countries may not have the same feelings. Saudi Arabia, India, and a host of other countries have implemented systems to block access to pornographic sites that contain content deemed offensive or not in the best interest of society. Western countries also censure specific material. To operate in German, Google must agree to remove results that would point users of its search service to sites that promote white nationalism or the Nazi party, even if those sites are hosted in another country. Many Germans see this not as censorship but rather as a way to maintain social cohesion. Google and other platforms modulate their content moderation, search results, and viewable content based on the policies of the countries in which they operate.
Some countries modulate Internet access based on the current political situation. Iran has restricted almost all Internet and cellular data traffic during unrest or protests. India has restricted certain services before elections, and Myanmar shut down terrestrial Internet access and mobile data for weeks during demonstrations.
Technology platforms will also change how their systems work to accommodate the demands or wishes of a government, especially if it is a government with a large or potentially large market for their devices. In the fall of 2022, during protests in China, Apple restricted the ability for iPhone users to airdrop files to one another, taking away a significant tool for protesters to spread information "peer-to-peer." Since the "Arab Spring," Twitter has also changed its content moderation policies to be more friendly to authoritarians (pre-Musk takeover).
Many authoritarian governments and dictators are not keen to have their citizens connected to the Internet at any level. They have seen how the flow of free information has led to revolutions and want no part. There is just one truly hard border on the Internet, North Korea, where 0.00% of the population is connected to the Internet. The citizens of North Korea are the only major populace who are restricted entirely from accessing the Internet. There is a strong correlation between countries run by authoritarians and a lack of internet access.
In many ways, the Internet has not lived up to its early promise to promote democracy. Not only have governments learned how to censor information, some have even weaponized the Internet and social media against dissidents and political opposition. Every year, Freedom House publishes a detailed report about the relative freedom of the Internet in the world's countries. Overall, the trend is not good for democracy.
…authoritarians are on a campaign to divide the open internet into a patchwork of repressive enclaves. More governments than ever are exerting control over what people can access and share online by blocking foreign websites, hoarding personal data, and centralizing their countries’ technical infrastructure. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom has declined for a 12th consecutive year.
—Freedom on the Net 2022 Report.
In a later post, we'll return to the topic of government censorship and control of internet access when we discuss how Planetary ISPs like Starlink can bypass systems of power and how repressive governments are respond to this threat to their authority. It remains to be seen whether Planetary ISPs will start participating in filtering and censoring content depending on the country being serviced.
The Connected and Unconnected
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimates that 37 percent of the world’s population (2.9 billion people) have never used the Internet. As one might expect, ninety-five percent of those unconnected millions live in developing countries. And among the five billion who are connected to the Internet, some have infrequent access or have very low-bandwidth and/or costly access, which limits the value of those connections for learning, earning an income, and other opportunities.
The unconnected regions of the world have large poor populations, and in the case of Africa, high population growth. These percentages will only change with a profound transformation of the economics of Internet access. Note: Internet access in Africa is mostly by mobile device; some 50% of households have access to a mobile device, compared to only 8% that have a computer.
When we instead look at the number of people who are not connected, rather than of the percentage of the population, countries like China, India, and Brazil rise to the top of the list. Again, mobile devices are a primary means of Internet access in these countries' rural and economically stressed areas.
No matter how you look at the data, the world's unconnected and poorly connected people live in areas lacking infrastructure, democratic governments, or affluence. Or all three. Services like Starlink would allow many people to be quickly and cheaply connected. The politics of infrastructure development aside, high-speed Internet by satellite could be a game changer for these countries and communities, not in five years, but in five weeks.
Now back to our main quest: The Mega Constellation
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When we say the "speed of light," most people mean the speed of light in a vacuum, which is 299,792,458 meters per second. However, light travels slower when moving through a medium like water or glass. The speed of light traveling through a fiberoptic cable varies by the properties of the cable but is typically 65 to 70 percent of that of the speed of light in a vacuum. Recent improvements in how fiberoptic cables are made may increase that rate dramatically. For comparison, the trip from New York to Sydney is 15,993 km one-way and would take 53 ms for light traveling in a vacuum to send a signal, whereas light traveling in a fiber optic cable would take 80 ms (source: High Performance Browser Networking by Ilya Grigorik, O’Reilly Media).
Radio waves travel at the speed of light as well, and electrical signals running on cooper wire are also very fast (200 km/s). However, raw speed is not what determines bandwidth, it is the amount of data that can be carried at that speed.
For cooper wire, the frequency of the signal that can be carried (high frequencies=more bandwidth) is limited by the length of the cable. While you will have no problem using a copper ethernet cable to connect your computer to your router at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) or more, once the length of the cable gets beyond 100 meters (328 feet) the signal becomes unstable. The longer the cable, the lower the frequency that must be used, and therefore lower bandwidth. Cooper cables also have the issue that they create a magnetic field which can interfere with the signals on other cables (so called cross-talk).
Radio is similar. For example 5G millimeter wave technology uses very high frequencies which allows for broadband speeds of 3-5GB, these are only useful for short distances with no obstructions (for example, you would probably not be able to use 5G millimeter wave inside a building).
Most stories about how the internet began tell the story of the development of ARPANET, and how it was created by the department of defense to ensure reliable communications for command and control in the event of a nuclear war. While that might have been a side-effect of the early design of ARPANET, the evidence that this was a motivating factor in the creation of the network is lacking.
Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon's excellent book "Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The origins of the Internet" conducted interviews with ARPANETs founders to set the record straight: "Bob Taylor..is on a personal mission to correct an inaccuracy of long standing. Rumors had persisted for years that the ARPANET had been built to protect national security in the face of nuclear attack. It was a myth that had gone unchallenged long enough to become widely accepted as fact. Taylor had been the young director of the office within the of Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) overseeing computer research and he had been the one he had started the ARPANET. The project had embodied the most peaceful intentions—to link computers at scientific laboratories across the country so that researchers might share computer resources, Taylor knew the ARPANET and its progeny, the Internet, had nothing to do with supporting or surviving war—never did."
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission defined "broadband" as 25 megabits per second (or Mbps) or higher download speed and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. The EU standard is 30Mbps download (no min on upload).
If the latency is high but consistent for all the packets involved in a videoconference, users will notice that it takes a bit for the other side of the connection to receive their audio. However, videoconferencing systems can get upset fast when the latency is different from one packet to another. The difference in latency from one packet to another is called jitter. Once the jitter gets above 30-50Ms, video and audio artifacts will become noticeable to the participants.
Censuring can be done at the various layers of the OSI model
Layer 3: All IP addresses have been geolocated to at least the country level, so it is easy to block all traffic to and from a particular country based on IP addresses.
Layer 4: If one wanted to block all access to a service like web browsing, a TCP "port number" would identify the offending traffic, and any packets attempting to get through would be stopped.
Layers 5-7: Network traffic would have to be inspected at a higher level to censure messages about a particular topic (say, the Tiananmen Square massacre).