|IN THIS THREE PART SERIES
PETER HAYES LOOKS AT THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF THE
INTERNET FROM A TECHNICAL ASWELL AS POLITICAL POINT OF
VIEW. TODAY - IN PART TWO - HE LOOKS AT THE SO-CALLED
BACKBONE COMPANIES, HOW DATA IS DISTRIBUTED, ANDHOW
E-MAIL GETS FROM ONE COMPUTER TO ANOTHER.
In part one of this series we
looked back at how computers first became linked and
networked, and at some of the early pioneers that made
today's Internet possible. Today we look at the companies
that provide public support, the physical hardware, and
the simple know-how that keeps the Internet traffic
In simple headline terms there are two distinct groups of
commercial people operating in the Internet world. The
so-called Internet Service Providers (the ISPs) and the
so-called "backbone" companies - the people
that provide the physical networks and connections along
which the Internet traffic flows.This can involve copper
wire networks, fibre optic streams and satellite links -
in many cases a single Internet connection will involve
all three mediums.
(To complicate the plot slightly, companies such as MCI
also own - among various other assets - the ISP
CompuServe. However let us ignore this slight
This Internet apartheid is a natural one: ISPs deal with
the general public, providing the software and customer
care and dealing with low level problems; while the
backbone companies get on with the single - but far from
easy - task of getting the data from Point A to Point B
in the quickest possible time.
Naturally ISPs are customers of these backbone companies
(nearly all of which are also standard voice telephone
companies) and pay for the privilege of using their
People often ask the question "where is the Internet
physically?" The best answer is "everywhere and
nowhere!" The data networks that carry the bulk of
the data traffic are owned by the major telephone
companies and are run alongside the standard voice
However setting up fibre optic and satellite networks,
and deciding the correct levels of investment are always
major headaches. The decisions of these backbone
companies make will decide the speed that the Internet
will operate at in the future - especially as more
customers join the system.
Today four major telecommunications companies control
more than 75% of all the Internet traffic: MCI
Communications, Sprint, Worldcom and GTE.
MCI Communications first launched a commercial backbone
service in 1994 after helping build and regulate the
NSFNET (National Science Foundation InterNET). One of the
forerunners to the Internet. It was MCI's Chief Engineer,
Vinton Cerf, that co-invented the packet-switching
protocol that is the basis of Internet communication
this year MCI agreed to be bought by WorldCom, but seems
to have retained its separate identity. According to data
provided by Boardwatch magazine MCI controls 31% of the
Internet backbone market.
Sprint is one of the oldest phone companies in the world
having been founded in 1899. It started its Internet
service in 1992 and has complained (without notable
success), to the US and European authorities about the
merger outlined above. According to data provided by
Boardwatch magazine Sprint presently controls 22% of the
Internet backbone market.
WorldCom first entered the Internet market in 1996 when
it bought the company UUNET Technology along with its
parent phone company MFS Communications. In 1997 it took
over ANSCommunications and CompuServe and customers
include America Oneline and the Microsoft Network.
According to data provided by Boardwatch magazine
Worldcom presently controls 20% of the Internet backbone
GTE entered the backbone business in 1997 when it bought
BBN, a company that helped build the first government run
internet - APRANET - in 1969. The history of APRANET was
explored in part one of this series. According to data
provided by Boardwatch magazine GTE presently controls 4%
of the Internet backbone market.
How these companies co-operate with the individual ISPs
can perhaps be best explained by giving an example of how
an E-mail gets from one place in the world to another.
Let us suppose User A in Glasgow wants to send an E-mail
to User B in New York. User A is a subscriber to a small
company called "Tartan Internet" and User B to
a local ISP called "Stars and Stripes"
Internet. The User A writes their message, primes their
specialist E-mail software and presses the
At this point Tartan Internet starts the ball rolling.
They have a contract with a company called Frontier (not
a real company) that connects their company with the rest
of the Internet. The E-mail is passed on to them.
Frontier now has a problem, it is not linked to Stars and
Stripes Internet so will need the services of a backbone
carrier that is. They have two ways to do this, either as
a "peer" or as a "customer." If two
Internet carriers decide that they are of equal size they
can exchange traffic with each other for free. They can
do this directly or by linking at so-called "public
Stars and Stripes uses MCI as its gateway to the Internet
which means that Frontier, in this instance, will have to
pay a"transit" fee to send the mail to them who
will, in turn, pass on the E-mail to Stars and Stripes
Internet ready to be downloaded by User B.
This is the most complicated scenario: The most simple
connection would be when both parties used the same ISP
and the message could be exchanged without even going on
to the Internet.
At one point in its history the Internet had only three
major peering points: In Chicago, Palo Alto and
Pennsauken - which is in New York State. However these
connections became over burdened and were supplemented by
so-called "private peering" These are direct,
bilateral connections between two carriers in which no
fees are charged.
Who will peer with who and under what circumstances is
the bug-bear of the industry. WorldCom, for instance,
will not peer with any carrier that doesn't have a
national network capable of 45 million bits of data per
As time goes on the rules of peering have got tougher.
John Sidgmore vice-chairman of WorldCom was recently
quoted as say that "physically we cannot possibly
peer with 7,000 ISPs."
In part three of this series we will look at the Internet
regulators, domain name registers and some of the future
based systems such as "off-line Internet."