The Things That Make the Internet

The Things That Make the Internet

For most of us the Internet is both miraculous and mundane. It is miraculous in that it is virtually unfathomable. Like television, telephone, radio and other technological advances, its very existence is the stuff of magic. The mundane part comes from our expectations of the Internet. Through all the digital devices that we own — everything from watches, tablets to desktops — we view being able to instantly access the trillions of facts, sites, knowledge and social opportunities on the World Wide Web with the same ennui and dispassion as we used to feel about hearing a dial tone.

But although these extremes of the extraordinary and quotidian are essentially abstract and intangible, lying between them is the physical story of the Internet — the blueprint of its pipes, channels and connections — that is often overlooked yet provides at least a grounding with which to understand the mysterious backbone of the digital age. In fact, what is perhaps most surprising about the Internet is that as a basic network it is shockingly uncomplicated. Viewed through the lens of a Rube Goldberg type diagram, the Internet is little more than a series of digital handshakes.

Boiled down to a few steps, a request from a computer to find, say, the best African safaris would likely be directed through fiber optic wires to a physical Google search facility (perhaps close to Africa where the service providers of the expedition are located). Via these same cables, Google’s servers will respond with the list and simultaneously attempt to anticipate the user’s next request by creating temporary links between the originating computer and the websites of the companies that are at the top of the search results. If the user clicks on one of these links, the circuit to the safari website would be instantly closed and the requested page would appear on the screen.

That’s it: the Internet, like telephones, telegraph and Telex before it, is a series of wires and stimuli. One very concrete facility illustrates this best of all. At 60 Hudson Street, in downtown New York City, is the old Western Union building, a 24-story art deco landmark. This elegantly designed structure is now shared by more than 100 telecommunications companies whose millions of miles of fiber optic wires interchange Internet traffic 24/7 in its hallways, rooms, walls and ceilings. It’s a cacophony of quiet communications, literally humming through the facility, much of it supporting a barrage of transactions and conversations among computers, cell towers, smart phones and tablets.

And if 60 Hudson exemplifies the massive interactivity of cables and nodes that the Internet requires, a recent ship departure in Oregon shows how challenging of a job it is to rewire the world for the Web. This 460-foot boat mostly financed by Google was destined for Japan, carrying nearly 6000 miles of fiber optic trunk line, intended to unspool and drop to the bottom of the ocean during a two-month journey. This huge undertaking involves just one of the hundreds of thousands of similar cables deposited around the world and the hundreds of thousands more planned to be hooked up as part of multiple, redundant networks owned by tens of thousands of companies.

Protecting the Unseen

Fiber optic cables are an Internet development distinct from any other communications channel before. Glass-like wires that rely on light instead of electricity to transmit data, fiber optic communications are extremely fast, can travel over long distances, have high bandwidth and are reliable. Most importantly, they make possible the most unique element of Internet interactions: packet switching. Unlike, for example, a landline telephone call, which is a direct connection between handsets, Internet communications travel via a series of packets or parts of a file with up to 1500 bytes.

Internet data packets can take multiple paths, eliding congested areas, separating from each other by miles, and then eventually reordering themselves before they reach their destination on a computer. The transparency of fiber optic wires enables packets to keep track of where their corresponding slices of data are and to find the appropriate files when they need to rejoin. DuPont plays a central role in strengthening fiber optics as the Internet backbone. To safeguard the optical wires from mechanical stresses, which would minimize their performance, DuPont™ Kevlar® synthetic fiber is used as a covering, providing protection from water and fire while supporting flexibility and the ability to withstand high loads. In some low diameter fiber optic applications, traditional Kevlar® is combined with resins to form a Kevlar® Reinforced Plastic.

There may be a next great build out of Internet connectivity that will bypass fiber optics in order to more quickly bring the Web to the half of the world that still doesn’t have access. Instead of wires, satellites would be used to transmit data and communications. Of course, there are dozens of satellites already gamboling through space transmitting all variety of telephonic and video activities from 20,000 miles above the planet, but they have not been effective for Internet interactivity because at their high orbit they communicate too slowly with Earth to manage anywhere near the data speeds the Web requires. Recent startups like Richard Branson’s OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are hoping to place satellites in low-earth orbit — about 100 to 1,250 miles overhead — to minimize latency and inefficiency of traditional satellites.

But since these new satellites are essentially narrow casting to smaller areas, hundreds of them could be needed to cover the wide-open, rural terrain where many Internet have-nots around the globe reside. Nonetheless, experts feel that a wireless approach to expand Internet access is inevitable, especially considering the significant advances taking place now in cable-free communications technologies. DuPont has numerous products commonplace in orbiting equipment that would serve well in Internet satellites. Among them are circuits built on the DuPont™ Kapton® polyimide platform, which resists water, cold and heat, as well as ceramic materials for conductors, resistors and other electrical components that can maintain performance of equipment over long periods of time in harsh space environments.