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Netscapes: Tracing the Journey of a Single Bit
The Internet surrounds us like air, saturating our offices and our homes. But it's not confined to the ether. You can touch it. You can map it. And you can photograph it. Here are five postcards from the journey of a single bit, as data flashes from sea to wired sea.
his modest indentation on the Canadian coastline is a major Internet landmark, a sort of Ellis Island of the Web: It's where a submarine cable owned by Hibernia Atlantic comes ashore. (Eleven major lines cross the Atlantic, and this one lands under the manhole, above left.) This particular bit started at a Hibernia sister station in Southport, England, and traversed the ocean in about 0.0028 second. It will then skip along one of two fiber-optic thoroughfares: the cross-Canada pipe, which goes to Montreal and points west, or the southern route, down the East Coast, through Boston to New York City. An injection laser diode encodes the information as superbright pulses of light. Our packet is headed south.
New York, New York
When our bit hits the Big Apple, it passes through the beating heart of the American Internet: 60 Hudson Street (right), in downtown Manhattan. More transatlantic and transcontinental lines come together in New York than anywhere else in the country. Western Union opened the building in 1930 as the telegraph junction between Wall Street and Main Street. The ducts that once carried high-gauge copper wire are now filled with thousands of strands of glass fiber owned by hundreds of networks. Techs physically connect them to one another in a "meet-me-room," neutral territory run by a company called Telx. From here, our bit continues southward again, instantaneously switched along the path of least resistance by pizza-box-sized routers that make your Linksys look like it came with Web-Surfing Barbie.
Behind a fortress of 12-foot berms, armed guards, and car-smashing pop-up barriers is a massive data center. If our bit is part of an email sent from USA .gov, certain financial institutions, or one of various three-letter government agencies, it will bounce around the servers here. Known as the Network Access Point of the Capital Region, the center sits at the intersection of the major data pipes going across the country and down the coast. That's one reason Terremark, the company that built and runs the facility, chose this spot. The ability of the local utility to provide 100 megawatts of power is another. But the most important reason is its distance from Washington, DC: 60 miles, far enough away to survive a nuclear blast or a terrorist attack on the city.
Kansas City, Missouri
The men who built the transcontinental railroad didn't know it, but they were clearing the way for the Web. Global Crossing uses the old Iron Horse's right-of-way as the main vein for its long-haul data pipes. Keeping information humming across a 3,000-mile-wide landmass requires utility huts like this one (on left) every 50 miles -- even the highest-grade optical fiber has imperfections that cause the signal to weaken as the countryside flashes by. Filled with dense wave-division multiplex amplifiers, these sheds goose the pulses of light and keep bits flowing alongside our amber waves of grain.
Grover Beach, California
After traversing the continent, our packet will arrive in an LA building much like 60 Hudson Street. But if it wants to ford the Pacific, it can jog north to a sleepy town near San Luis Obispo. This sheltered section of coastline is not a busy commercial port, so it's unlikely that a ship will drag an anchor through a transoceanic cable here. A major landing point for data traffic from Asia and South America, the station at Grover Beach sends and receives about 32 petabits of traffic per day. As our bit streams through the Pacific Crossing-1 cable (underneath the four posts, left), it's on the same trail as some of the most important information in the world: stock reports from the Nikkei Index, weather updates from Singapore, emails from China -- all moving at millions of miles an hour through the very physical, very real Internet.
Portfolio by Randall Mesdon
Correspondent Andrew Blum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is writing a book about the structure of the Internet.
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